Bouncing Back After Tragedy
While research surrounding the hedonic treadmill often paints a grim picture of how difficult it is for humans to ever be happy, it should also be of interest how we are able to return to a stable level of happiness after we experience a negative event. Instead of seeing ourselves as passive agents who let our experiences mould our outlooks, could it be that we actively engage in activities that will make us happy after a disaster occurs ?
A study conducted by behavioral economist Jayson S. Jia and colleagues examined how people’s behavior changed following an earthquake and how the kind of behavior they engaged in impacted their notion of perceived risk.13 They wanted to examine whether people would engage in more pleasurable activities following a disaster, a hypothesis based on research showing that seeking positive emotions is part of the mood-repair process. The researchers used mobile phone activity to interpret people’s behavior, suggesting that how people use their phones reflects their day-to-day real world behavior. For example, increased phone calls to friends likely correlates with more physical interactions with friends.13
The researchers found that after the earthquake, individuals increased their engagement with communication apps, hedonic apps (apps engaged in for pleasure, such as music, games, etc.) and functional apps (information tools). Specifically, the researchers found that engaging in hedonic apps helped decrease people’s perceived risk of another earthquake.13 These results suggest that we are good at returning to our baseline level of happiness because we counterbalance negative events with pleasurable activities, instead of us just becoming used to a lower neutral level of happiness.
Monotony in Romantic Relationships
When you first get together with a new romantic partner, you are likely to feel a great deal of happiness almost akin to euphoria. Eventually, you come down from cloud nine – you might still be happy, but not in the exuberant way you were before. The hedonic treadmill suggests that this occurs because you end up incorporating the joy that you feel from being with that person into your baseline level of happiness. Once subsumed in the relationship, it becomes part of your everyday routine and is no longer exciting, causing some people to take their relationships for granted. Unfortunately, this hedonic adaptation is often the cause behind cheating, as people go searching again for that ‘high’ they once felt.14
By being aware of the hedonic treadmill, you can try to prevent this feeling of boredom so that your relationship doesn’t go stale. This may mean ensuring you and your partner spend time apart so that seeing each other again feels novel and exciting,9 or engaging in gratitude, which is more resistant to hedonic adaptation.14 For example, you and your partner may practice gratitude daily by tells telling each other something each person did that day to make them feel grateful.