Have you ever felt like you're on a never-ending treadmill, chasing happiness? You buy a new car, phone, or dress, and for a moment, you feel high—but soon enough, you're back to feeling the way you did before. This is the hedonic treadmill. It always forces you to find the next good thing, the next happiness fix. But what if you can step off that treadmill into lasting happiness?
In this article, join us as we explore the ups and downs of the hedonic treadmill with practical tips on how to step off anytime you want.
What is the hedonic treadmill?
The key concept of the hedonic treadmill is that we adapt to positive or negative changes in our lives but eventually return to a baseline level of happiness.
When something good happens to us, we experience a temporary boost in happiness, like getting a promotion or falling in love. Yet, over time, we become accustomed to these positive changes, and happiness fades.
Similarly, when something bad happens, such as losing a job or experiencing a breakup, we experience negative emotions but eventually adapt to the new normal.
This baseline level is often called the 'happiness set point.' It's the idea that each person has a default level of happiness to which they tend to return over time, regardless of the ups and downs they experience.
What does the research say about hedonic theory?
The term was first coined in the academic press by psychologists Brickman and Campbell in their 1971 study, "Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society." This study explored the relationship between happiness and material wealth.
They found that while increased wealth did lead to an initial boost in happiness, this effect was short-lived. Ultimately the subjects returned to their baseline happiness levels.
A more recent study from 2006 also supports the theory. Individuals who experienced positive events, such as winning the lottery, or negative life events, like becoming paralyzed, returned to their baseline level of happiness within a year (11).
However, the hedonic treadmill theory has been debated since its introduction. Some researchers suggest that the idea is too basic since it does not take into consideration different personality traits.
Why is the hedonic adaptation what it is?
One possible explanation is because of human behavior and survival instincts.
Our ancestors needed this mechanism to survive by adapting to positive stimuli like food and shelter while focusing on new threats or challenges. This allowed them to stay alert and vigilant in the face of danger.
However, in modern society, this mechanism can lead to an excessive thirst for happiness as we baseline positive events and then seek out new ones.
The hedonic treadmill theory suggests that while we may experience temporary boosts in happiness and negative emotions, ultimately, we tend to return to our baseline levels over time. This is also known as the hedonic adaptation theory.
Real life examples of the hedonic treadmill
Now that the 'hedonic treadmill' has piqued your interest. Let's explore some illuminating examples of hedonic adaptation in our daily lives.
In today's consumer culture, advertisers often convince people to spend more money by advocating, 'the more you have, the happier you are.' However, research suggests that this is not true (22,33).
When people acquire something new, happiness increases, but any increase in positive emotion soon returns to its baseline. This creates a never-ending materialistic thirst for stuff and things that never really make you happy.
Hedonic adaptation can also impact romantic relationships. At the start of a relationship, people often experience a 'honeymoon phase' with elevated levels of happiness.
As the relationship continues and familiarity sets in, the bubble tend to get deflated. This can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and wanting more excitement in the relationship.
Food and taste
Hedonic adaptation can also occur in relation to taste preferences.
At first, the new taste might be really exciting and enjoyable. However, as people become accustomed to the taste, their enjoyment decreases. Thus they may need to seek out new and more intense flavors to experience the same level of pleasure.
A classic example of hedonic adaptation is lottery winners.
Research by Brickman and Campbell found that although lottery winners initially experienced an increase in happiness, they eventually returned to the good-old baseline. In fact, they found that lottery winners were not significantly happier than non-winners in the long term (44).
Victims of major loss
Quite surprisingly, people who go through major negative life events, such as paralysis or losing a loved one, also experience hedonic adaptation.
While the loss is devastating initially, people often adapt to their new circumstances and return to their baseline level or life satisfaction set point. If anything, this is proof of human nature and resilience and our ability to adapt to negative events and difficult situations.
Hedonic adaptation is a common phenomenon that affects many areas of our lives. Whether it's material possessions, romantic relationships, taste preferences, winning the lottery, or even experiencing a major loss, we all have an emotional set point or happiness baseline that we inevitably return to over time.
Everyone has their happiness set point
Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky introduces the 'happiness set point' theory in her book "The How of Happiness." Her conclusions are not any different from the established hedonic adaptation level theory except that she takes it a bit further.
However, she takes it a bit further in that each person has different hedonic set points for different areas of life, or basically multiple set points.
One may be naturally happier in one's romantic life rather than a career, and this is because people value different things. Some prioritize relationships over work, while others prioritize work over relationships.
What determines your happiness set point?
The happiness set point is influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, and individual differences.
Genetic factors play a significant role in determining a person's happiness set point. Research suggests that identical twins have a similar life satisfaction set point, while fraternal twins have different happiness levels.
This means that genetics play a role in determining the happiness set point (55).
Personality traits also influence the happiness set point. For example, people with high levels of neuroticism tend to have a lower set point, while people with high levels of extraversion tend to have a higher one (66).
Another strong factor is social support. People with strong social networks tend to have a higher happiness set point than those who are isolated (77).
Coping mechanisms also play a crucial role in determining a person's happiness set point.
People who can deal with negative events in a positive way, like being mindful and focusing on positive thoughts, usually have a higher level of happiness than those who cannot (88).
The set point can be changed!
The good news is that our happiness set points can be changed. To raise our set points, we need to reduce hedonistic happiness and instead strive for more eudemonic happiness.
This means there are two main types of happiness: hedonic and eudemonic.
Hedonic happiness, as mentioned before, is the unconscious pursuit of illusionary happiness. Eudaimonia, on the other hand, is a type of happiness based on a sense of purpose and meaning in life.
Eudemonic happiness is a more profound and longer-lasting happiness that comes from fulfilling one's potential and contributing to society.
While both types of happiness can bring joy, having eudemonic experiences is more meaningful to life's satisfaction.
The positive psychology of overcoming hedonic pleasure
To secure long-lasting happiness, we need to engage in meaningful experiences and embrace positive psychology for our overall well-being. Below are ways to cultivate positive emotions in order to step down from the hedonic adaptation chase.
Collect a variety of pleasures
One way to reduce hedonic adaptation is to, ironically, seek out more varied pleasurable experiences. Research has shown that people who engage in diverse activities are happier than those who engage in a narrow range of activities (99).
To add more variety to our lives, we can try new hobbies or activities, explore different types of cuisine, or look for new social engagements.
We can take a cooking class, learn a new language, travel to a new place, or attend a cultural event. Exposing ourselves to new experiences can broaden our horizons and enhance our subjective well-being.
Another way to cultivate lasting happiness and subjective well-being is to practice meditation. Regular meditation can reduce negative emotions while improving cognitive function and overall happiness (1010).
There are many types of meditation, but two popular forms are mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation.
Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment. Loving-kindness meditation involves generating feelings of love and kindness towards oneself and others.
To get started with meditation, set aside a few minutes each day to sit quietly and focus on your breath. You can also use guided meditations, apps, or classes to help develop your practice.
Gratitude is a powerful way to cultivate positive psychology. By focusing on what you have rather than what you lack, you can develop a greater sense of contentment and satisfaction.
Gratitude has been shown to have numerous benefits, including improved mental and physical well-being, better sleep, and better personal relationships (1111,1212)
To practice gratitude, you can keep a gratitude journal, where you write down three positive things you are grateful for each day. You can also write a gratitude letter to someone who has positively impacted your life or simply say thank you more often (1313).
Build strong relationships
Strong social connections are another essential ingredient to greater well-being. Research suggests that people with strong social networks are happier, healthier, and more resilient (14,15,1616).
You can reach out to old friends, join a social group, or volunteer in our community. Regularly checking in with loved ones, having meaningful conversations, and actively listening to others can also help.
Strong relationships can create a sense of belonging and support that boost positive emotions and carry you through difficult times.
Helping others can be a powerful way to combat hedonic adaptation and promote lasting happiness.
When you engage in acts of altruism, you not only provide help to those in need but also experience a sense of purpose and fulfillment. People who volunteer or engage in other forms of community service report higher levels of life satisfaction and overall well-being (1717).
There are many ways to get involved in helping others, from volunteering at an animal shelter to simply being there for a friend or family member in need.
By making a positive impact on the lives of others, you can not only increase your level of happiness and subjective well-being but also contribute to the greater good of society as a whole.
Material possessions can provide temporary pleasure, but they often contribute to the hedonic treadmill and do not lead to long-term happiness or greater well-being.
Minimalism frees us from the constant need for more and lets us cherish what we already have.
Practicing minimalism involves simplifying your life by decluttering your home, focusing on experiences rather than possessions, and adopting the 'one-in, one-out' rule when buying new items.
Overall, minimalism helps simplify your life by reducing material possessions and focusing on experiences that bring life satisfaction.
Pursue meaningful goals
After simplifying your life through minimalism, you can focus on pursuing meaningful activities and goals that align with your values and interests.
Setting and achieving these goals can bring a sense of purpose and fulfillment that material possessions cannot provide. You can start by asking questions about your values and interests:
What brings me joy and fulfillment?
What stirs up my passion?
What skills do I want to develop?
Maybe you want to start baking. Perhaps you want to learn breakdancing or help homeless people. Once you clearly understand what is important, you can begin to set goals that align with those values and interests.
Remember that goals should be truly meaningful to you rather than simply being what others expect you to chase.
Finally, regularly reassess and adjust your goals as needed. Be sure that you remain aligned with your values and interests over time.
Break free from the never-ending hedonic treadmill race by pursuing meaningful activities. Engage in different experiences, set meaningful goals, or practice meditation and gratitude. You can also build strong relationships, help others, and embrace minimalism.
What is the hedonic theory?
The hedonic treadmill theory explains why people endlessly pursue temporary happiness. After peaks or dips in happiness, people tend not to maintain a new level of happiness, but rather they return to a familiar baseline.
What are the disadvantages of the hedonic treadmill?
The constant pursuit of new levels of happiness can be exhausting and stressful. People feel pressured to improve their life circumstances, thinking they will reach a new level of happiness. This seldom happens, and life satisfaction is not achieved.
What is a real-life example of the hedonic treadmill?
A typical example of the hedonic treadmill is buying a new car. Initially, there's a surge of happiness and excitement. However, as the novelty wears off, one's level of happiness returns to its previous baseline. Lottery winners are another classic example.
Why do we have hedonic adaptation?
Hedonic adaptation perhaps helped our ancestors survive in changing environments. A stable baseline of happiness acted as a coping mechanism when faced with negative events, and it gave leeway to explore new opportunities.
How do you overcome the hedonic treadmill?
To gain more lasting happiness, focus on meaningful experiences. Build strong relationships and pursue meaningful goals for life satisfaction. You can also practice gratitude and meditation to cultivate a peaceful mind.
We all pursue happiness; it is a natural thing to do. But with the modern traps of materialism and overstimulation, we often find ourselves in the endless pursuit of hedonic pleasure. To achieve genuine and long-lasting happiness, we need to focus on meaningful experiences. Try out different things, connect with interesting people, cut out distractions, and engage in more enriching activities. By doing so, you may be surprised by how satisfied and happy you become!
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