The Hedonic Treadmill: An Obstacle to Lasting Happiness

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is our tendency to quickly return to baseline levels of happiness after major positive or negative life events. This adaptation means you inevitably adapt to good things and start taking them for granted, and generally tend to recover after a loss. The hedonic treadmill means as you collect more material possessions and accomplishments, your expectations rise. Your prior achievements and things you’ve worked so hard to accumulate, while very exciting and satisfying at the time, tend to wear off. You then look for the next boost of happiness, reach it, adapt, and the cycle goes on.

There is substantial evidence for the hedonic treadmill. If we didn’t adapt hedonically, we’d generally be able to predict happiness levels based on the amount of material possessions and achievements one has. We’d see the more fortunate happier than the less fortunate, but this is not the case. Studies have shown the less fortunate tend to be just as happy as the more fortunate. There is surprisingly little potential in good things and high accomplishments to raise happiness more than temporarily.

Here’s the breakdown according to Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, PhD. author of “Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment.”

  • In less than three months, major events (such as being fired or promoted) lose their impact on happiness levels.
  • Wealth, which surely brings more possessions in its wake, has a surprisingly low correlation with happiness level. Rich people are, on average, only slightly happier than poor people.
  • Real income has risen dramatically in the prosperous nations over the last half century, but the level of life satisfaction has been entirely flat in the United States and most other wealthy nations.
  • Recent changes in an individual’s pay predict job satisfaction, but average levels of pay do not.
  • Physical attractiveness (which, like wealth, brings about any number of advantages) does not have much effect at all on happiness.
  • Objective physical health, perhaps the most valuable of all resources, is barely correlated with happiness.

That’s not to say we adapt to everything equally well or at all. There are life events that are so bad we never get used to them; losing a child or a spouse in a car crash is one example. Four to seven years after traumatic life events like this, people are still much more depressed than controls. Another example would be the reduced subjective well-being over time reported by people caring for family members stricken with Alzheimer’s.

Together with genetics and your happiness set point, the hedonic treadmill is only one obstacle to your happiness. But don’t worry, there are steps we can take. New research demonstrates happiness can be lastingly increased. For example, optimistic and grateful people that have learned to savor life report higher life satisfaction than those always looking for their next transient shot of happiness.

Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

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