The Hedonic Treadmill: Why We Constantly Chase Happiness

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hedonic treadmill

In psychology, the hedonic treadmill is a concept that refers to the human tendency to return to a relatively stable level of happiness, despite major positive or negative life events. This phenomenon is also known as hedonic adaptation, which is the idea that individuals adapt to changes in their environment and eventually return to their baseline level of happiness.

For example, imagine someone who wins the lottery. At first, they may experience a surge of happiness and excitement. However, over time, they may become accustomed to their newfound wealth and return to their previous level of happiness.

Similarly, someone who experiences a significant loss, such as the death of a loved one, may initially feel intense sadness and grief. However, over time, they may adapt to their new circumstances and return to their previous level of happiness.

Another example of hedonic adaptation is the experience of buying a new car. At first, the new car may bring a great deal of happiness and excitement.

However, over time, the novelty wears off and the car becomes just another part of daily life. The happiness that was initially associated with the new car fades away, and the person returns to their baseline level of happiness.

The concept of a hedonic treadmill has important implications for our overall well-being and happiness. It suggests that we may be more resilient than we think and that even major life events may not have as much of an impact on our long-term happiness as we might expect.

Understanding this idea can help us better navigate life’s ups and downs and appreciate the small moments of joy and contentment that make up our daily lives.

Hedonic Treadmill Theory

The term Hedonic treadmill was coined by Brickman and Campbell in their 1971 article “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society” to describe people’s tendency to maintain a relatively stable baseline of happiness despite external events and fluctuations in demographic circumstances.

In 1978, Brickman et al. began to approach hedonic pleasure within the framework of Harry Helson’s adaptation level theory, which holds that perception of stimulation is dependent on comparison of previous stimulations.

Hedonic adaptation works similarly to most adaptations that protect and improve perception. Sensitization or desensitization to circumstances or environment can redirect motivation in the case of hedonics.

This reorientation serves to guard against complacency while also accepting unchangeable circumstances and redirecting efforts toward more effective goals.

People showed individual differences in how they responded to significant life events such as marriage, divorce, and widowhood in a longitudinal study conducted by Mancini, Bonnano, and Clark. They acknowledged that some people experience significant changes in their hedonic set point over time, while the majority do not, and argue that the happiness set point can be relatively stable throughout an individual’s life, whereas the life satisfaction and subjective well-being set points are more variable.

Psychology of the Hedonic Treadmill

The Role of Adaptation

People tend to return to their baseline level of happiness regardless of what happens to them. It is due to adaptation, which is the brain’s ability to adjust to new situations and return to a state of equilibrium. This means that even positive events, such as winning the lottery or getting a promotion, will only temporarily boost happiness before returning to the baseline level.

It is possible that hedonic adaptation is more prevalent when dealing with positive events as opposed to negative ones. Negativity bias, in which individuals tend to focus more on negative than positive emotions, can impede a person’s ability to increase their happiness set point.

Positive experiences, which may even outnumber negative ones, are typically overshadowed by negative emotions, which require more focus and are remembered more vividly.

The Impact of Expectations

Another factor that influences the hedonic treadmill is expectations. People with high expectations for a particular event or experience are likelier to be disappointed when it doesn’t meet those expectations.

This can lead to a decrease in happiness and a return to the baseline level. On the other hand, when people have low expectations, they are more likely to be pleasantly surprised and experience a temporary boost in happiness.

The Influence of Social Comparison

Social comparison is the process of evaluating oneself in relation to others. This can significantly impact the hedonic treadmill, as people often compare themselves to others they perceive as being happier or more successful.

Feelings of envy or inadequacy, and a decrease in happiness, can be the result. Conversely, when people compare themselves to others who are less fortunate, they may experience a temporary boost in happiness, followed by a lessening of happiness after the habituation period.

Happiness Set Point

The happiness set point is the level of happiness that a person typically experiences over the long term. While external factors can influence happiness in the short term, research suggests that people have a relatively stable level of happiness that is largely determined by genetics and personality traits.

This means that even major life events, such as winning the lottery or experiencing a tragedy, will only temporarily increase happiness or negative feelings before returning to the baseline level.

Minimizing Hedonic Adaptation

The constant pursuit of happiness can lead to the so-called hedonic treadmill, where individuals engage in increasingly extreme positive experiences to maintain their level of happiness. However, this can lead to burnout and a decrease in overall happiness.

To minimize hedonic adaptation, you should focus on engaging in meaningful activities that provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment, rather than relying on pleasure-seeking behaviors. By finding joy in pursuits that align with their values and goals, individuals can break the cycle of the hedonic treadmill and maintain a higher level of happiness in the long term.

Factors that Affect the Hedonic Treadmill

Personality Traits

One primary factor affecting hedonic adaptation is an individual’s personality traits. Research has shown that some individuals have a more positive outlook on life and are more resilient to negative events. These individuals tend to have higher set levels of happiness and are less likely to experience a significant drop in their happiness levels after a negative life event.

On the other hand, individuals who have a more negative outlook on life and are less resilient may experience a more significant drop in their subjective well-being levels after a negative life event.

Personality traits such as neuroticism, extraversion, and conscientiousness have been found to play a role in an individual’s level of happiness and ability to adapt to changes in their life. For example, individuals who score high in neuroticism tend to have a more negative outlook on life and are more likely to experience a significant drop in their happiness levels after an adverse life event.

Locus of Control

In a 2008 paper, Bruce Headey concluded that having an internal locus of control and having “positive” personality traits (particularly low neuroticism) are the two most important factors influencing one’s subjective well-being. Headey also discovered that adopting “non-zero sum” goals, those goals that improve one’s relationships with others and with society as a whole (i.e. family-oriented and altruistic goals), raises one’s subjective well-being.

Attaching importance to zero-sum life goals (career success, wealth, and social status, for example) has a small but statistically significant negative impact on people’s overall subjective well-being (even though the size of a household’s disposable income has a small but positive impact on subjective well-being).

The length of one’s education appears to have no direct impact on life satisfaction.

Disability and Illness

In addition, contrary to set point theory, Headey discovered no return to homeostasis following a disability or the development of a chronic illness.

Because these disabling events are permanent, they may contribute to depressive thoughts and increase neuroticism, according to the cognitive model of depression (another factor found by Headey to diminish subjective well-being).

The single most important factor influencing human subjective well-being appears to be disability. Disability has nearly twice the impact on subjective well-being as the second most powerful factor influencing life satisfaction — the personality trait of neuroticism.

Cultural and Environmental Factors

Cultural and environmental factors can also play a role in an individual’s sense of happiness and their ability to adapt to changes in their life. For example, individuals who live in countries with high levels of social support tend to have higher levels of happiness and are less likely to experience a significant drop in their happiness levels after a negative life event.

Similarly, individuals who live in environments that promote physical activity and healthy eating habits tend to have higher levels of happiness and are less likely to experience a significant drop in their happiness levels after a negative life event.

People in independent-based cultures (such as the United States) experience emotions in oppositional ways, while those in interdependent-based cultures (such as China) experience emotions in dialectic ways.

Ed Diener and colleagues found in a 2003 study that cultural variables explain differences in mean levels of subjective well-being, which appear to be caused by objective factors such as wealth, norms dictating appropriate emotions, the perceived importance of subjective well-being, and the relative approach versus avoidance tendencies of societies.

The Impact of Life Events

Life events such as losing a job, getting a divorce, or experiencing the death of a loved one can significantly impact process of hedonic adaptation. However, research has shown that the impact of these life events tends to be temporary, and individuals tend to return to their baseline level of happiness over time.

Additionally, research has shown that individuals who experience positive life events, such as getting a promotion or winning the lottery, tend to experience a temporary increase in their level of happiness. However, this increase is also temporary, and individuals tend to return to their baseline level of happiness over time.

Overall, the impact of life events on an individual’s level of happiness is temporary, and individuals tend to return to their baseline level of happiness over time. However, an individual’s personality traits and cultural and environmental factors can also play a role in their happiness level and ability to adapt to changes in their life.

Countering the Hedonic Treadmill

While hedonic adaptation is a natural process, there are strategies that individuals can use to counteract its effects. One such strategy is to focus on experiences rather than material possessions. Experiences such as travel or spending time with loved ones can bring lasting happiness instead of material possessions, which can lose their novelty quickly.

Another strategy is to practice gratitude. Focusing on what one is grateful for can increase happiness levels and prevent individuals from taking their situation for granted.

Finally, a 2020 study found that enjoying short-term enjoyable activities that do not lead to long-term goals contributes at least as much to a happy life as self-control. Therefore, the researchers argue for greater hedonism appreciation in psychology.

Katharina Bernecker, a motivational psychology researcher at the University of Zurich and co-author of the study, believes a reevaluation is necessary. Obviously, self-control is essential, but research on self-regulation should also consider hedonism or the pursuit of short-term pleasure.

Since Bernecker’s research demonstrates that the capacity to experience pleasure or enjoyment contributes at least as much to a happy and fulfilled life as self-control, this is the case.

This is because Bernecker’s research indicates that people’s ability to experience pleasure or enjoyment contributes at least as much to a happy and fulfilled life as successful self-control.

So, what can you do to make the most of your downtime? More research is needed, but the researchers believe that consciously planning and limiting periods of enjoyment may help to separate them more clearly from other activities, allowing pleasure to occur more uninterruptedly.

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