The hedonic treadmill is the idea that an individual's level of happiness, after rising or falling in response to positive or negative life events, ultimately tends to move back toward where it was prior to these experiences.
One's baseline level of well-being, or "set point," is not necessarily emotionally neutral—it is likely positive for most people—and it is not the same for everyone. A person may also have different baselines for different aspects of well-being (overall life satisfaction versus the amount of positive emotions experienced, for example).
The process by which positive or negative effects on happiness fade over time is called hedonic adaptation.
Starting a new romance or being promoted at work may cause a brief burst of extra joy, but these events will not necessarily change people’s everyday levels of happiness in the long run. Instead, people often adjust their expectations to the new status quo and find themselves desiring even more to maintain the same level of happiness.
Similarly, even very negative events will typically not keep a person depressed forever; eventually, one's mood will likely shift back in the direction of the happiness baseline. The hedonic treadmill can be a double-edged sword, offering protection from the impact of harmful environments while constraining potential gains in happiness over the long term.
After moving to a new house or apartment, one may revel in the extra room, the higher ceilings, the improved view to the outside, or other features—only to stop appreciating these things as much as the months wear on. The same could be said for the mood boost we might receive from other new possessions or highly anticipated experiences. People can also adapt to painful experiences such as unemployment or the loss of a loved one, such that eventually, their level of happiness returns back to where it started, or at least closer to the baseline than immediately after the event.
As with other happiness-boosters, people who begin romantic relationships tend to eventually get used to—and perhaps begin to take for granted—much that is positive about being with a partner. Initially novel and exciting attributes, or shared experiences, may become less-appreciated over time. And among married couples, an increase in happiness during the “honeymoon period” is likely to revert back to the baseline. Efforts to recharge the relationship, such as seeking to incorporate variety into shared experiences, might help to counteract this process of habituation.
Not entirely. While studies have found that many people show a rebound in their levels of happiness after positive or negative developments in their lives, that experience is not universal—and those who do adapt to changes don’t necessarily return completely to the baseline. Research indicates that there are differences between individuals in the extent to which well-being naturally recovers from events such as divorce or the death of a spouse, for example.
Hedonic adaptation may have developed to serve functions similar to those of other forms of adaptation, such as when a person’s body adjusts to a change in environmental conditions. As some researchers have suggested, the functions of hedonic adaptation could include limiting the detrimental physical effects of repeated intense feelings (such as stress) and dampening motivational signals when they are not very useful for informing behavior (as when someone is unable to eliminate hunger or escape confinement).
“Hedonic” means having to do with the amount of pleasure or displeasure a person experiences. “Hedonic well-being” describes a form of happiness related to the experience of pleasure and avoidance of displeasure or pain—as opposed to “eudaimonic well-being,” which is thought to involve a sense of meaning and realizing one’s potential.
Everyone experiences some level of “hedonic well-being” during their lives—some degree of pleasure, from whatever sources. Hedonism is a distinct term that refers to the principle that pleasure should be the aim of human behavior, or to the idea that seeking pleasure and avoiding pain is the primary aim of human behavior.
It may be disheartening to think that even if somebody racks up achievements and accumulates wealth, she will inevitably revert to a happiness “set point”—always stuck on the treadmill rather than truly moving forward. While hedonic adaptation may not be something people can avoid entirely, research indicates that our typical levels of happiness are not, in fact, set in stone. And researchers of well-being have proposed some ways to hold on more tightly to gains in happiness when they arrive.
Since hedonic adaptation is thought to occur in part because of the repetition of experiences—seeing the same beautiful vista every day, perhaps, or having the same kinds of interactions with a friend or partner—one potential way to keep happiness from fading is to mix up the elements of one’s positive experiences so that they are less repetitive. Another approach is to try to appreciate such experiences even more by making an effort to pay attention to and savor what is enjoyable about them.
The side of hedonic adaptation that pertains to negative experiences—where people often return to earlier levels of well-being after initially taking a hit—is comparable to the concept of resilience. Research has found that individuals can be remarkably capable of recovering from even major losses or traumas. The best ways to adapt to a negative experience will depend on its nature and intensity, but some general approaches to promoting resilience include treating oneself with compassion as well as seeking out sources of social support and opening up about hardship.
The level of well-being that a person tends to report—and toward which one may drift back after a positive or negative experience—is thought to be determined at least partly by innate characteristics. Behavioral genetics research indicates that more genetically similar people (identical twins versus fraternal twins, in the research) tend to be closer in their levels of well-being. However, research suggests that a person’s general tendency to experience a certain amount of well-being can enduringly shift due to external factors, including life-altering experiences such as a bereavement or a long-term disability. Given that set points are not always fixed, a person may also be able to reset it in a positive direction through persistent behaviors such as pursuing altruistic goals.
It seems that they do, at least once they pass a certain threshold. Even for people who win the lottery, the initial burst of happiness may wear off before long, research suggests. More generally, research finds that higher incomes correspond with higher levels of well-being, but only up to a point—in one study, up to around $95,000. While some degree of wealth can make life more secure and comfortable and consequently, it would seem, make someone happier, the benefits to happiness do not extend indefinitely.