Hedonic Treadmill

The tendency for people to quickly return to a relatively stationary level of happiness or "set point" despite experiencing major positive or negative events or life changes

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What is the Hedonic Treadmill?

The hedonic treadmill is a theory based on the observation that there is a tendency for people to quickly return to a relatively stationary level of happiness or “set point” despite experiencing major positive or negative events or life changes. The hedonic treadmill is also known as hedonic adaptation.

Adaptation is the process by which the negative and positive effects on happiness fade over time. The name hedonic treadmill was first mentioned in the 1971 Brickman and Campbell’s essay called “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.”

Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is based on the idea that an individual level of happiness ultimately moves back towards where it was before either rising or falling in response to major life events. The baseline level of happiness or well-being is known as the set point and is not necessarily emotionally neutral.

However, it is most likely positive for most people but is not necessarily the same or at the same level for everyone. Also, people can adopt different baselines for different aspects of well-being, such as positive emotions and life satisfaction.

Understanding Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is evident in our daily lives. When human beings experience good things, such as winning a lottery, buying a new house or car, or attain a long-awaited promotion, it induces an increase in happiness, which will later reduce to a normal personal baseline over time. The same goes when a person experiences a loss or a devastating setback; feelings of loss and despair will dissipate in severity over time until a person returns to their baseline set point in time.

Therefore, the hedonic treadmill theory indicates that people will eventually recover from life-altering situations. Their emotions will return to the individual baseline set point state of happiness over time.

Hedonic Treadmill

What Does it Mean to be on the Treadmill?

The hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation is part of human nature that gives the ability to continuously adapt to ever-changing situations. Hence, euphoria dissipates, wrath calms, and grief ultimately regresses. It means despite such extreme events and emotional imbalances in human daily life, emotional equilibrium is eventually regained.

In other words, humans will step back on the hedonic treadmill to pursue other goals, hopes, and desires. Psychologists think that the hedonic treadmill is a human’s ability to survive. It entails that humans shove past events into an emotional mind pocket to free themselves to handle new events that they will face in the present.

Observed Examples of Hedonic Adaptation

Find below a few examples of hedonic adaption identified by psychologists:

1. Lottery winners

People who win the coveted lottery prize experience high levels of happiness at the time. However, according to psychologists, the winners tend to return to their previous levels of happiness once the novelty of the winning experience wears off.

Some even end up less happy because of the changes in relationships and emotions that would’ve taken place. The influx of happiness can last about a year but will recede gradually to the normal sense of happiness and well-being.

2. Major accident victims

Victims of major accidents experience excruciating physical and emotional pain at the time of the accident. They may end up losing their legs or arms, which is a permanent result that can devastate the victims.

However, they usually return to their pre-accident level of well-being and happiness after the habituation period.

3. Food

The first bite of delicious food brings about an influx of joy and is deemed to be more pleasurable than the successive bites that come after that. However, after the mood lift and ecstatic feeling, the food treat ceases to bring the influx of joy.

What is Happiness?

The hedonic treadmill is premised on the idea that humans generally return to a steady level of happiness that is consistent with their personality and genetics. Some psychologists argue that as much as 50% of the human capacity for happiness is inherited from our parents. However, it is not a widely regarded assertion among all psychologists.

Wordnet Dictionary defines happiness as the “state of well-being characterized by emotions ranging from contentment to intense joy.” Cambridge Dictionary defines well-being as “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” It can be confusing to tell the difference between well-being and happiness. Equally so, it is difficult to measure personal happiness, and researchers use several tools, such as interviews, surveys, and subjective scales. All the measures are subjective in terms of process and interpretation.

Also, according to researchers, life experiences tend to promote enduring shifts in emotional states. That is, extremely positive or negative life events can cause permanent changes in personal happiness.

Types of Happiness

There are two main types of happiness or sources of pleasure, i.e., hedonism and eudaimonia.

1. Hedonism

Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure. It refers to the sort of pleasure or happiness that we derive from doing what we like or avoid doing what we do not like. The most common examples of hedonic pleasure are sex and food. Hence, hedonism is described as enjoyment that can include a number of things that different people enjoy.

2. Eudaimonia

The second type of happiness is called eudaimonia, which is the fulfillment derived from pursuing purposeful activities. It happens when people achieve something meaningful like passing the bar exam, finding a purpose in life, and helping other people in a significant way.

Such a type of happiness is less affected by the hedonic treadmill. It takes longer for eudaimonia to diminish compared to hedonic happiness. However, both the two happiness types assist in fostering resilience from negative and catastrophic events.

Ways to Limit Effects of Hedonic Treadmill and Increase Happiness

Below are suggestive ways to reduce the effects of the hedonic treadmill and increase capacity for long term happiness.

1. Practice mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness, especially daily, helps one to live in the moment and be mindful of what is happening around oneself. In such a way, it is easier to see what is important and what is not necessary for one’s life. Being unmindful and distracted by the daily busy schedules of modern life seems quite common. Mindfulness is a type of meditation that can improve the feeling of well-being and promotes positive thinking.

2. Love and compassion

Practicing being kind, loving, and compassionate increases the level of happiness both internally with oneself­ as well as with others. It is generally agreed that people who help other people are generally happier and achieve a greater sense of well-being. Such a type of meditation removes negative feelings and replaces them with a positive attitude towards life in general.

3. Self-development

Personal self-development is associated with a deep sense of well-being. Personal self-development is achieved through pursuing personal goals, envisioning a positive future for your life, and pursuing activities that one is good at, as well as passionate about.

4. Build optimism culture

Optimism is a trait that is almost synonymous with happiness. An optimistic person is often someone with happy thoughts and looks forward positively into the future. It helps to obtain satisfaction and life enjoyment, which leads to improved health both mentally and physically.

Proverbs 23:7 (KJV) says “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) concluded that “we become what we think about.” Being constantly in an optimistic mood can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy and the opposite can be true as well.

5. Emotional acceptance

It is paramount to accept both positive and negative emotions, although the latter can be quite difficult for some people. They may find it harder to accept negative emotions and tend to avoid them, which can lead to psychological problems.

Emotional avoidance is common because the negative emotions being avoided are usually linked to bad and negative occurrences that one would rather forget, e.g., the loss of a loved one through tragic means. Hence, avoidance of negative emotions because of feelings of discomfort that they convey will bring temporary relief but lasting torment.

6. Expression of gratitude

People who often deliberately express gratitude for positive events often obtain pleasure from the remembrance of past experiences and develop their capacity for happiness. Expressing gratitude also reduces the process of hedonic adaptation by constantly revisiting positive events where one expressed immense gratitude as a result of how the events impacted their life.

7. Develop and pursue meaningful goals

As highlighted in the sections above, doing something meaningful results in a positive impact on life and often leads to increased well-being and happiness. Hence, setting and pursuing goals that you consider to be meaningful can lead to increased happiness and well-being. The road to achieving a meaningful goal leads to feelings of satisfaction and happiness. In addition, setting meaningful goals motivates one to be goal-oriented and driven to achieve. The mind usually discards less meaningful goals.

8. Develop relationships

Developing close relationships and social ties helps individuals live happily by providing a support network in times of need. This is especially so as a person gets older. Hence, investing in lasting relationships can lead to happier healthy living and ward off depression and loneliness.


If you always want more in life, you will most likely never get satisfied, and you will never avoid the treadmill. People go through multiple set points of happiness, and the overall well-being of a person is a combination of physical, psychological, biological, social, emotional, and spiritual well-being. The inadequacies in the well-being of any factor are offset by other factors.

The hedonic treadmill theory shows that despite the human pursuit of happiness, the goal is seldom easy to attain. It also proves that money doesn’t buy happiness and explains why rich people are not necessarily happier than poor people.

The theory concludes that the pursuit of happiness cannot be attained by the accumulation of material resources but by appreciating and cherishing what one has as opposed to taking it for granted. Happiness also comes from pursuing meaningful activities and goals, developing meaningful relationships, mindfulness, expressing gratitude, among other things.

Additional Resources

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