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When Happiness Doesn't Last

Some kinds of happiness are more fleeting or more durable than others.

Key points

  • Hedonic adaptation means that some positive or tragic events don't affect our long-term happiness levels.
  • Some sources of happiness are particularly fleeting or temporary. Others, like forging close relationships, can genuinely change your happiness.
  • According to research, the happiest people are those who have built supportive relationships.
Marko Milivojevic / Pixnio
Source: Marko Milivojevic / Pixnio

Who doesn’t want to be happy? It’s always easy to lose oneself in wondering what it might take to find happiness and sustain it–over a day, a year, or a lifetime.

The research on the topic might not seem terribly encouraging, though, in that it often focuses on what’s known as hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill. That phrase brings to mind a kind of hamster wheel of futility: a perpetual jog toward something better while continually rolling back to your starting place and never really making progress.

Hedonic adaptation was first defined in 1971 by Brickman and Campbell in an article with the snappy title Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society. It refers to the typical tendency of human beings to drift back to a fairly stable level of happiness–or unhappiness–no matter what happens in their lives.

In other words, even if you’re fortunate enough to get a raise, or the chance to take a long-planned vacation finally arrives, or the person you’ve been pining for suddenly develops a crush on you, the burst of happiness you’ll experience will gradually mellow over time.

Another way of thinking about it might be somewhat more positive: try thinking of it in terms of recovery from sadness instead. Hedonic durability, a term from an article by Tennant and Hsee (2017), emphasizes the sustainability of a base level of happiness–which generally persists even after serious problems or difficulties.

Seen this way, the hedonic treadmill might actually point to human resilience or fortitude. If we know that the events causing us serious grief or anger today will fade away tomorrow, leaving us feeling approximately the same as we did yesterday, it might be easier for us to get through the hard times.

It seems like common sense to recognize that the bursts of happiness derived from sensory experiences or physical sensations are usually temporary. Research confirms this and also suggests that although most of us can take delight in the novelty of a new situation–like a gift, a trendy new app, or a dessert we haven’t tried before–these happy moments don’t last long.

Likewise, big financial wins and losses seem like they’ll bring with them a great deal of satisfaction or happiness, but ultimately, they don’t. In fact, according to Easterlin (2003), most people place too much importance on their expectations for money-related happiness.

Easterlin argued that too much time and effort might be spent trying to reach financial goals, leaving too little energy to pursue others. And, as we will see, more durable–forms of happiness, such as friends, family, and good health.

Other types of happiness don’t endure, so much so that some psychologists believe that as much as half of our happiness comes from an inherited genetic “set point” (Lyubomirsky et al., 2011). Happy events, or negative experiences, affect us only for a short while. Then we return to a level of contentment mostly dependent on our personality (and thus on our genes).

One final type of short-lived happiness is the kind you pursue because you want what someone else has. Tennant and Hsee (2017) suggested that trying to achieve something because it has personal, intrinsic value to you–because you care about it for its own sake, not because you envy another person who has it–can leave you feeling more long-lasting and durable happiness.

It may seem like I’m making the point that no form of happiness can last longer than a few days, but luckily, that’s not the case. Easterlin (2003) indicated that although “pecuniary”–money-related–goals do not seem to nudge people far from their genetic “set points,” more personal and relational goals do.

Marriages, for instance, have a significant and durable positive effect on happiness. (Of course, the opposite is true as well: Divorce generally brings with it a relatively long-lasting dip in contentment and well-being.) Also, as Yang and Galak (2015) reported, attaching sentimental value to an event or item grants it greater power to create durable happiness.

Yang and Galak suggested that sentimental value conveys positive associations to an item and that these positive associations create more happiness than the properties of the item alone. In other words, the matchbook you took from the restaurant on your first date with your partner may always have the power to make you feel good because now it’s more than just a matchbook: it’s a trigger for memories and the good feelings that come with them.

And that’s the best way to create happiness that lasts: to pursue something known as eudaemonia, or as McMahan and Estes (2011) described it, the fulfillment generated by the pursuit of personally meaningful activities. Helping other people, or doing something that moves you toward a significant personal goal, works to generate a stronger sense of purpose in life.

Lai et al. (2020) reported that the happiness that comes from helping others or joining your community for public benefit–"engaging in prosocial behavior,” as they put it–can increase your happiness more sustainably.

But my favorite quote about happiness comes from Calvo et al. (2012), “According to research,” they reported, “the happiest people are those who have built supportive relationships.”

This, to my eye, is a fine bottom line: Although happiness is more complicated than any of us expected, and despite the mistakes that we make in pursuing it, most of us can find the best, most long-lasting contentment in forging strong connections with our friends, partners, and families.


Brickman, P. & Campbell, D. T. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. New York: Academic Press. pp. 287–302. in M. H. Apley (Ed.), Adaptation-level theory: A Symposium, pp. 287-305. New York: Academic Press

Dambrun M. Self-centeredness and selflessness: happiness correlates and mediating psychological processes. PeerJ. 2017 May 11;5

Easterlin RA. Explaining happiness. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Sep 16;100(19):11176-83.

Lyubomirsky S, Dickerhoof R, Boehm JK, Sheldon KM. Becoming happier takes both a will and a proper way: an experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being. Emotion. 2011 Apr;11(2):391-402.

Tennant RJ, Hsee CK. Hedonic nondurability revisited: A case for two types. J Exp Psychol Gen. 2017 Dec;146(12):1749-1760.

Yang Y, Galak J. Sentimental value and its influence on hedonic adaptation. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2015 Nov;109(5):767-90.

McMahan, E. A., & Estes, D. (2011). Hedonic versus Eudaimonic Conceptions of Well-Being: Evidence of Differential Associations with Self-Reported Well-Being. Social Indicators Research, 103 (1).

Lai, W.; Yang, Z.; Mao, Y.; Zhang, Q.; Chen, H.; Ma, J. When Do Good Deeds Lead to Good Feelings? Eudaimonic Orientation Moderates the Happiness Benefits of Prosocial Behavior. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17, 4053.