What Is the Hedonic Treadmill? (and How Hedonic Adaptation Prevents Lasting Happiness)
Have you ever achieved a major goal, only to find yourself feeling empty once you have reached it?
Or, have you ever gone on a shopping spree and felt happy for the rest of the day, but not after that?
Why doesn't that rush continue two days later, even though you still have all of these new things?
If these experiences sound familiar, then you’ve probably experienced something that psychologists call the hedonic treadmill.
It turns out that almost everybody experiences the hedonic treadmill. But if you learn to recognize its signs, you can build simple habits that will help increase your happiness without feeling the need to constantly buy new things.
So let’s talk about the hedonic treadmill and how it frequently trips people up.
What Is the Hedonic Treadmill?
The hedonic treadmill, which is also referred to as hedonic adaptation, is a metaphor for your set point of happiness. The idea here is that no matter how good or bad something makes you feel, you will eventually return to your original emotional state.
One study that is often used to describe this phenomenon showed that despite their extreme joy in the moment, lottery winners were no happier than anyone else 18 months later. People also return to this baseline feeling after marriage, buying a new house, and getting a job promotion, which are all things that you would expect to permanently increase your happiness.
The term first appeared in Brickman and Campbell’s essay "Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society," published in 1971. The authors described people's tendency to remain at a baseline level of happiness, regardless of any external events or changes in their demographic situations, such as getting married, increasing income level, or adding a new person to the family.
This theory basically supports the saying “money doesn't buy happiness.” It may also explain why rich people aren’t exactly happier than poor people, and why those who have very few material possessions and choose to live a simplistic life actually seem happier. This is because the people who have only a few possessions are able to cherish what they have instead of take them for granted. They are thankful for their belongings, and are not constantly looking to find the "next best thing."
How the Hedonic Treadmill Relates to Lasting Happiness
The hedonic treadmill theory teaches us that long-term happiness is rarely influenced by major positive or negative events or life changes. You will go back to your "happiness set point" after you experience both good and bad things in life.
When it comes to material possessions, they eventually become something that you use habitually, and therefore you lose your appreciation for them. Once these items are no longer enjoyable, they deteriorate into needs instead of wants. This means that the amount of deprivation you feel without these once highly sought-after items is greater than the amount of happiness you have to possess them.
For example, let's say a new smartphone is coming out in a few months and you just can't wait to have it. You figure that as soon as you get that smartphone, you will be such a happy person and all of your life's problems will subside.
Then the day comes where you get the phone, and you are excited to see how it is about to change your life. But after a few days, you are using this phone just as you were using your last one, and it hasn't seemed to impact your life at all. Instead of being this prize that you have been waiting for, the phone is now just an everyday item that you use.
For long-term happiness, this means that it is not the number of things that someone has that makes them happy, but how much they are able to enjoy the things they have. These books cover other factors that go into long-term happiness.
So Why Pursue Happiness When We Go Back to Neutral Anyway?
Further research done by Ed Diener brought a greater sense of understanding to the theory, and to the happiness set point. Diener believed happiness is a process and not a destination point.
The key to experiencing happiness is to enjoy the moment that you are in, rather than looking toward the future. This causes your happiness set point to not be neutral, but instead change positively over time. Even if you return to a previous point, it’s positive instead of neutral.
Everyone has an individualized happiness set point depending on their personality traits and heredity, which both influence your level of well-being. It is better to achieve happiness earlier in life to generate a life of more positivity, but everyone is born with a predisposition to a certain set point of happiness, which may work in your favor or work against you.
Also, everyone has multiple happiness set points. Your overall well-being is a combination of your biological, psychological, physical, social, emotional or mental, and spiritual well-beings. So, even if one of these areas of your life is low, it can be made up for by another area.
7 Ways to Avoid the Hedonic Treadmill and Increase Your Happiness
1. Practice daily mindfulness.
Practicing daily mindfulness gives you a chance to stop and think about the things in your life that you are grateful for. It also allows you to live in the moment and notice the small things around you that otherwise go unnoticed during the hustle and bustle of your life.
Engaging in mindfulness practices can help you relax and take a mind-body-based approach to help you change the way that you think and feel about your experiences, especially those that are stressful. Doing this can keep you at a relatively stable level of happiness instead of causing your feelings to rise and fall.
2. Practice loving kindness meditation.
Practicing loving kindness meditation helps people increase the love that they have in their hearts not only for other people, but also for themselves. There are many variations of this type of meditation, but they all revolve around the fact that people who are able to do things to help other people in life are generally happier overall, and have a greater sense of well-being. This compassionate form of meditation helps get rid of any negative feelings and replaces them with positive ones.
This meditation can create an attitude towards life that is beneficial for your well-being. How you choose to practice it is up to you, but no matter how you choose to incorporate loving kindness meditation into your life, it will transform your happiness in a positive way.
Optimism correlates with happiness, but they are not identical. If you continuously look forward to an enjoyable life, you will be more likely to obtain more satisfaction and enjoyment in life, which will also lead to improved physical health and longevity. You have to expect that positive things will happen, even in the worst situations. If you choose to expect the negative, that is exactly what you will experience.
Part of being optimistic is being able to tell yourself that everything will be ok. If you can convince yourself of this in your mind, it is more likely to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Use positive affirmations to generate the optimism you need to live a happy life.
If you are not born with an innate sense of optimism, it can be learned. Research shows that happy and unhappy people experience the same number of adverse events on average throughout their lives. The difference is that optimistic people interpret unfortunate life events in a different way than pessimistic people do, and they're willing and able to make positive changes in their lives to oppose the negative events that they experience. Pessimists, on the other hand, are more likely to do nothing and find themselves falling into negativity, exhaustion, and depression.
4. Accept your emotions, whether they are positive or negative.
Emotional avoidance can lead to many psychological problems. While one may think that avoiding negative emotions is a reasonable and smart thing to do, these emotions are typically linked to negative events in our lives that we want to forget. While avoidance provides momentary relief, in the long run, avoidance turns issues into bigger problems than whatever was being avoided to start with.
Avoiding your negative emotions gives you some gain in the short term, but harms you in the long run. When you avoid the discomfort of a negative emotion, it works for a little while, but the emotions return the next day. The more this is done, the longer the issue is put off and the unresolved issue multiplies.
5. Set meaningful goals.
The research on pursuing goals and your well-being shows a correlation between progress on goals and reported levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Making progress on goals makes people feel happy and satisfied, which then increases goal-directed behaviors. This suggests that having positive emotions can motivate people to behave in a way that helps them further their goal progress.
If you set meaningful goals and start making some progress on them, you will experience an increase in your well-being that will lead to further action and progress toward happiness. Here's the catch: If you don't find the goal or task to be meaningful, you will put it off to do some other time. You may figure that the goal doesn't mean much to you, so why would you do it? Intrinsically interesting goals are those that you want to accomplish, not just tasks that you have to complete.
6. Put more effort into your relationships.
Nothing cures unhappiness like close friendships with compassionate people who care about you. One study found that those who are over 70 and have the strongest network of friends tend to live much longer. This doesn't mean that you can't live alone or be independent. It simply means that having a support system available to you at any age is beneficial to your health.
We live in an individualistic society that lacks sufficient social connections. Some experts believe this is a leading factor in today's epidemic levels of depression. In order to have support through difficult times, you have to generate strong friendships and social ties.
7. Develop your gratitude habit.
Performing a daily "gratitude exercise" by writing down a few things that make you grateful each night can increase your happiness. Gratitude exercises like this shift people away from resentment and despair, and promote happiness instead. It is a good idea to force yourself into gratitude at least one time each day.
Everyone has bad days and frustrating moments, but that shouldn't keep you from thinking about the good in your life for a few seconds. This positive thinking has a cumulative effect that will begin to have you realizing that some things that you thought were really important in life maybe are not that big of a deal. Practicing gratitude is a small and sustainable habit to help increase your level of happiness.
Achieving long-term happiness is easier said than done, but still doable. The key is to accept that most of the great things in our lives have nothing to do with buying things, wealth, or your material possessions. Instead, happiness comes from meaningful work, great social networks, and recognizing the great things that are already in your life.
Learning to enjoy what you have is an imperative factor in happiness. If you always want more, you will never be satisfied.
If you want to truly get past the mindset of the hedonic treadmill, then I suggest trying one or two of the strategies mentioned above. After you find that a few of them are working for you, continue on down the list.