The Hedonic Treadmill and How It Affects Your Happiness
If you’ve read any articles or books on the topic of happiness, you may have heard the term hedonic treadmill.
But what is it exactly, and what causes it? More importantly, how does it affect your happiness?
What is the Hedonic Treadmill?
Hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation, is a psychological term that refers to the human tendency to return to a baseline level of happiness, or set-point, after experiencing positive or negative changes or events in their life. This phenomenon has been observed in a number of studies under a variety of circumstances.
What does that mean exactly?
It means that even after something good or bad happens to us, our happiness levels eventually go back to normal. That our happiness is relatively stable throughout life.
This is contrary to what many of us believe. When something major happens in our life, for better or worse, we imagine it will have a lasting and permanent effect on our level of happiness. Things like losing a limb, or winning the lottery.
However, psychology researchers say that our life circumstances only play a minor role in how happy we are. Hence, the hedonic treadmill refers to the fact that while we are constantly chasing things we think will make us happier, we eventually return to the same spot with no real change.
Examples of the Hedonic Treadmill
Many of us believe that if we won the lottery that our lives would change dramatically for the better.
We wouldn’t have to worry about money. We could travel. We could buy a large house, fast cars, and new clothes. In short, we’d be much happier.
This scenario, though, was actually the basis of one of the more famous happiness studies where researchers tracked individuals who had won the Illinois lottery.
They found while it did raise happiness levels initially, 18 months later there was no real difference between lottery winners and non-winners.
But hedonic adaptation also works in the other direction. That same study also found a similar, but opposite, phenomenon when looking at people who were paralyzed. While many of us believe that being a paraplegic would make us significantly less happy, this was not the case.
Let’s take marriage, another major life event that is the basis for lasting happiness. When researchers looked at data on over 24,000 people, they found that happiness levels returned to normal after only a couple of years (although there was slight variations for some people).
There are plenty of other examples that show that life circumstances don’t affect our happiness as much as we think. As happiness researcher and expert Sonja Lyubomirsky tells us in The How of Happiness:
Human beings adapt to favorable changes in wealth, housing, and possessions, to being beautiful or being surrounded by beauty, to good health, and even to marriage.
What Causes Hedonic Adaptation?
Happiness researcher Kennon Sheldon found that there there are a couple of reasons why people adapt to positive events:
They stopped being happy because they kept wanting more and raising their standards, or because they stopped having fresh positive experiences of the change…
In other words, there are two main psychological causes behind hedonic adaptation:
We can quickly adapt to new situations. After receiving that promotion at work, you’ll get used to sitting in your new office. You’ll become accustom to your image in the mirror after losing weight. And you’ll soon forget how nice the weather when you move to California.
As your new situation becomes more and more normal, you’ll being to want more. Your standards, along with your aspirations – to earn a bigger paycheck, look more beautiful, or have more things – will rise.
Declining Positive Emotions
When a positive change occurs in your life, there’s a wave of feel-good emotions.
Say you get a new car. Every time you jump in you appreciate the leather interior . You feel a sense of pride when you show it to friends. And you love how much better your air conditioning works in this car than in your last.
But that excitement and number of positive emotions will eventually decline as we get used to them. Thus, our happiness level drops back to normal.
How to Avoid the Hedonic Treadmill
So are we destined to forever return to a base level of happiness? Or is there a way to step off the happiness treadmill?
It’s true that there are a number of activities we can pursue to make us happy. But there’s a problem. We can get used to any routine or activity. Even ones that make us happy.
So how do we overcome our ability to adapt? There’s two key concepts that will help make sure we continue to get shots of happiness.
The first way is about wanting what you already have. Simple appreciation. Researcher Kennon Sheldon talks about a study where people employed this strategy:
A few were able to appreciate what they had and to keep having new experiences. In the long term, those people tended to maintain their boost, rather than falling back where they started.
The second thing we can do to make our happiness boost permanent? Variety.
Lyubomirsky from the How of Happiness:
…this is why another important way that you can bolster the effectiveness of a happiness activity is to vary it. By varying it, we ensure that we don’t adapt to it.
And one way to mix up the variety is through timing. The How of Happiness:
…it’s essential to consider your strategies’ frequency and duration and to strive to time them in ways that deliver you greatest satisfaction, serenity, or joy – in other words, to time them in ways that thwart adaptation.
There’s a number of ways that you can inject variety into activities. The intensity of a workout. The location, time of day, or the frequency with which we do the activity. Or slightly adjust how you do it.
But it’s important to make little changes so it doesn’t become another boring routine.
Hedonic Adaptation Isn’t All Bad
We usually think of the hedonic treadmill as a bad thing, but in reality it can be a double-edged sword.
For any of life’s positive events, there are equal misfortunes that can befall us. A raise vs. unemployment, marriage vs. divorce, or health vs. illness.
So while more money may not give us a permanent happiness boost, we can find comfort in the fact that a divorce won’t put us in a permanent black hole of despair either.
When it comes to happiness, though, what’s the bigger picture? What lesson can the hedonic treadmill teach us?
That raising your level of happiness is a process. It’s deliberate. It takes effort. It’s is a journey that requires growth, engagement, intent, and purpose.