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Hedonic Treadmill

What Is the Hedonic Treadmill?

The hedonic treadmill is a metaphor for the idea that an individual's level of happiness tends to return to where it started—a “set point”—regardless of good fortune or negative life events the person experiences. The process by which positive or negative effects on happiness fade over time is called hedonic adaptation.

Starting a new romance, being promoted at work, or even winning the lottery may cause a brief burst of extra joy, but these events will not necessarily change people’s everyday levels of happiness in the long run. Instead, people often adjust their expectations to the new status quo and find themselves desiring even more to maintain the same level of happiness—hence the treadmill comparison.

Similarly, negative events such as losing a job, a home, or a loved one will not typically not keep a person depressed forever; eventually, one's mood will likely revert toward the happiness baseline. The hedonic treadmill can be a double-edged sword, offering protection from the impact of harmful environments while constraining potential gains in happiness over the long term.

Can You Increase Your Level of Happiness?

Woman with umbrella smiling at rain.

While people's happiness may not be 100 percent within their control, there are evidence-based ways to boost satisfaction over time. For example, incorporating variety whenever possible could make it less likely for someone to grow accustomed to the status quo.

Activities that allow a person to enter a “flow” state, such as writing, playing music, creating art, or practicing a sport, as well as meditating, can prolong feelings of well-being. Many people also derive gains in well-being from endeavors such as volunteering and charity work.

The mindful savoring of each moment, whether it’s spent with loved ones or alone, can help buffer against the effects of the hedonic treadmill and maximize contentment.

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