Hedonic Treadmill

The Basic Idea

How often do you find yourself sitting at home, dreaming of obtaining something you desire? It could be a better job, a better car, or a better apartment, all with the accompanying thought that if you could just get it, you’d be so much happier.2 However, if you look around at what you already do have, there was likely a time where you thought that once you obtained those things, you’d be happier. Briefly, they may have worked – but eventually your level of happiness returned to normal and you began to desire new things.

The cycle of returning to a ‘normal’ level of happiness is called the hedonic treadmill. It is a phenomenon that suggests that people’s level of happiness, after being moved in either a positive or negative direction, eventually returns to a baseline level, where it was before the experiences causing the rise or dip.3

The hedonic treadmill suggests that we are relatively stable creatures and that our happiness levels don’t fluctuate over the long term. This means we can bounce back fairly quickly after something bad happens, but it also means that when an event brings us a lot of joy, that feeling of happiness will only last a little while. We adapt to the events in our life, which is why the hedonic treadmill is often also referred to as hedonic adaptation.

You want something because you think it’ll make you happy, and maybe it does, briefly. But then the new thing loses its shine and you revert to your earlier, less happy state. This is the ‘hedonic treadmill’, and we all seem to be trapped on it.

– Oliver Burkeman, British journalist for The Guardian1

Key Terms

Hedonic: related to or characterized by pleasure.4

Habituation/Desensitization: a decrease in response/affect to a stimulus after being repeatedly exposed to it.5Gratifications: activities we become very engaged in, which cause us to lose track of time. It is suggested that gratifications are less susceptible to hedonic adaptation than pleasures.6

Relativism: the idea that happiness and sadness exist in relation to other things – for example, our past experiences and/or other people’s experiences – meaning that happiness is not absolute, but relative.

Resilience: the ability to quickly recover from negative experiences or sadness.

History

The hedonic adaptation theory was first proposed by Canadian psychologist Philip Brickman and American psychologist Donald Campbell in their 1971 paper, “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.7 In this paper, Brickman and Campbell suggested that people experience pleasure or sadness when faced with an event or stimulus that is more positive or negative than their current hedonic adaptation level. The hedonic adaptation level was thus said to be a baseline level of happiness. Brickman and Campbell also posited that fleeting moments of happiness or sadness could actually shift the baseline level of happiness up or down, therefore changing a person’s ‘neutral’ level. Because happy and sad events incorporate into the baseline level, joy and dissatisfaction both fade over time. Brickman and Campbell suggested that the only way to ensure consistent happiness is to continuously experience new positive events.8

The psychologists believed that hedonic adaptation had serious individual and societal implications, as they found that new events were compared not only to one’s own past experiences, but also compared to the experiences of people around them. This finding suggested that new stimuli did not have to only surpass one’s own individual ‘neutral’ level of happiness, but also other people’s happiness levels. For the individual, hedonic adaptation suggested that pleasure is always fleeting and that the higher your baseline level, the harder it is for you to experience happiness because new stimuli must surpass that baseline.8 Brickman and Campbell also suggested that any societal interventions aimed at improving people’s happiness would ultimately fail, because people would just incorporate the new experiences into their baselines through hedonic adaptation.8

Twenty years later, British psychologist Michael Eysenck used the term ‘treadmill’ to refer to ‘hedonic adaptation’ 2 because just as you run on a treadmill only to stay in the same place, your happiness levels always end up back where they started.6

A few years after Eysenck’s coining of the hedonic treadmill, behavioral scientists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein classified three different types of processes involved in hedonic adaptation: shifting adaptation levels, desensitization, and sensitization. The shifting adaptation level followed what Brickman and Campbell had theorized would happen when people experience a new stimulus: the return to baseline. Desensitization describes a process through which it becomes harder for people to feel negative shifts in their happiness because they grow accustomed to negative stimuli. Sensitization describes the opposite experience to desensitization: because of prolonged and continuous exposure to pleasure, people’s sensitivity to new pleasurable events increases.9

Consequences

The hedonic treadmill challenges some of our ideas behind how to achieve happiness. While it suggests that humans are resilient in the face of challenges, it also suggests that happiness is momentary and fading. It is from the hedonic treadmill theory that the saying “money can’t buy you happiness” originates. This is because with more money, your expectations and desires also change; for example, the trip to Florida you always dreamed of may now look like a trip to Fiji instead – but whatever goes wrong or right on the trip will induce the same feelings of pleasure or aggravation. In other words, your baseline level of happiness will have increased after money has been adapted into it, meaning the experiences required to lead to an actual feeling of pleasure will have to be of a higher caliber than before. In this way, pleasure can be seen as a drug; as people, we are addicted to this drug and our tolerance is in constant fluctuation.

A follow-up study regarding the hedonic adaptation was conducted by Brickman and fellow psychologists Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulmam in 1978. This study showed that lottery winners had the same levels of happiness before and after winning the lottery, demonstrating that the happiness boost that money provides is fleeting.10

The hedonic treadmill shows that we need to shift our understanding of how to pursue happiness. An entire field called positive psychology is dedicated to understanding what makes life meaningful for humans. Although the hedonic treadmill seems to be a fact of life, that is not to say we are doomed to never be happy. Research conducted by positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky suggests that 10% of our happiness is based on life circumstance, which tracks with the hedonic adaptation theory, but that 40% of our happiness is under our own control.11 We therefore need to find strategies to counter or complement the hedonic treadmill.

Since hedonic adaptation occurs when we adjust to pleasures, we should try to mix up the kind of activities we seek happiness through, so that they always feel fresh and novel.6 Another idea is to keep a gratitude journal, so that when the happiness associated with your new job, apartment, or car runs out, you can remind yourself of how you felt when you obtained those desires.6 Alternatively, instead of shifting the kinds of activities you partake in, you might need to shift your understanding of happiness and success. Instead of finding happiness in obtaining material items or specific goals, which end up losing their appeal, we can focus on the joy that we obtain from less ‘achievable’ aspects of life, like gratifications, meaningful relationships, or passions things.11’ Since these things are less tangible, they are harder to compare to other people’s lives, which means you’re less likely to compare your happiness to other people’s, or even to your previous self.

Controversies

Hedonic adaptation stipulates that when we experience something positive, we incorporate the happiness we feel into our baseline level and thus become desensitized to the happiness brought on by the continued positive experience. However, some research suggests that the happier we are, the more positively we think about other life events and life circumstances. Lyubomirsky conducted a study in 1998 that showed that happy individuals perceive and interpret neutral events in a more positive light than unhappy individuals.2 Unlike the hedonic treadmill, which suggests bouts of happiness are only fleeting, this research suggests that when our baseline level of happiness shifts, it might actually be easier for us to maintain a level of happiness because we our mindset adjusts, and we begin to generalize our happiness elsewhere.

Additionally, the hedonic treadmill might not apply to all kinds of pleasures. One kind of pleasure that seems to be particularly resistant to hedonic adaptation is the pleasure derived from undergoing plastic surgery. Multiple studies have shown that the majority of plastic surgery patients feel satisfied with their procedure, and that this feeling is typically maintained over a long period of time. For example, a 2013 study compared happiness levels of 544 patients with the happiness levels of 264 people who had considered getting plastic surgery but decided against it. Those who had undergone surgery had higher levels of self-esteem and reported higher rates of happiness, which persisted at both their three, six, and 12 month check-ins.12

It is unclear why something like plastic surgery would be resistant to the hedonic treadmill theory, but it does show that the theory is not applicable to all kinds of experiences. It could be that experiences thought of as “self-improving”, like plastic surgery, continue to make someone feel happy for extended periods of time. This hypothesis is somewhat supported by Maslow’s pyramid, an idea that suggests the highest level of happiness to be self-growth.

Other research also suggests that gratifications, rather than pleasures, are more immune to the effects of hedonic adaptation.6

Case Studies

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.

Related TDL Resources

Are We Happier Than We Think We Are?

The hedonic treadmill theory suggests that we need to change how we conceptualize and pursue happiness, because obtaining our desires only leads to a shift in baseline happiness which makes our new level of happiness feel neutral. This article examines a theory put forward by psychology professor Hillel Einhorn. Einhorn suggests that instead of focusing on our wants, we should focus on the things that we are glad not to have. Since his theory is based on what we don’t experience instead of what we do experience, the practice might allow us to appreciate our ‘neutral’ level of happiness by realizing that we could be much worse off.

Sources

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  2. Pennock, S. F. (2014, November 21). The Hedonic Treadmill – Are We Forever Chasing Rainbows? Positive Psychology. https://positivepsychology.com/hedonic-treadmill/
  3. Psychology Today. (n.d.). Hedonic treadmill. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/basics/hedonic-treadmill
  4. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (n.d.). Definition of hedonic. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hedonic
  5. Cherry, K. (2019, December 11). When and Why Does Habituation Occur? Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-habituation-2795233
  6. Scott, E. (2020, July 16). Hedonic Adaptation: Why You Are Not Happier. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/hedonic-adaptation-4156926#gratifications
  7. Oxford Reference. (n.d.). Hedonic treadmill. Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095928134
  8. Intelisano, S., & Luhmann, M. (2018). Hedonic Adaptation and the Set Point for Subjective Well-Being. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of Wellbeing. DEF Publishers.
  9. Hz, A. (2020). Hedonic Adaptation [Medical College Report]. ResearchGate.
  10. Chen, J. (2019, July 17). Hedonic Treadmill. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/hedonic-treadmill.asp
  11. Go Strengths!. (n.d.). What is the hedonic treadmill? Retrieved November 16, 2020, from https://gostrengths.com/what-is-the-hedonic-treadmill/
  12. Bicknell, J. (2016, March 29). The Loophole in the Hedonic Treadmill. Nautilus. https://nautil.us/blog/the-loophole-in-the-hedonic-treadmill
  13. Jia, J. S., Jia, J., Hsee, C. K., & Shiv, B. (2016). The role of hedonic behavior in reducing perceived risk. Psychological Science, 28(1), 23-35. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797616671712
  14. P., S. (2016, July 26). Neither the Supermodel Nor the Housewife Wins: Hedonic Adaptation in Relationships and How it Could Play a Role in Infidelity. Emotional Affair Journey. https://www.emotionalaffair.org/hedonic-adaptation-in-relationships/

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