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Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is the idea that an individual's level of happiness, after rising or falling in response to positive or negative life events, ultimately tends to move back toward where it was prior to these experiences.

One's baseline level of well-being, or "set point," is not necessarily emotionally neutral—it is likely positive for most people—and it is not the same for everyone. A person may also have different baselines for different aspects of well-being (overall life satisfaction versus the amount of positive emotions experienced, for example).

The process by which positive or negative effects on happiness fade over time is called hedonic adaptation.

How the Hedonic Treadmill Works

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Starting a new romance or being promoted at work 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.

Similarly, even very negative events will typically not keep a person depressed forever; eventually, one's mood will likely shift back in the direction of 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.

What are examples of hedonic adaptation?

After moving to a new house or apartment, one may revel in the extra room, the higher ceilings, the improved view to the outside, or other features—only to stop appreciating these things as much as the months wear on. The same could be said for the mood boost we might receive from other new possessions or highly anticipated experiences. People can also adapt to painful experiences such as unemployment or the loss of a loved one, such that eventually, their level of happiness returns back to where it started, or at least closer to the baseline than immediately after the event.

What does the hedonic treadmill mean for relationships?

As with other happiness-boosters, people who begin romantic relationships tend to eventually get used to—and perhaps begin to take for granted—much that is positive about being with a partner. Initially novel and exciting attributes, or shared experiences, may become less-appreciated over time. And among married couples, an increase in happiness during the “honeymoon period” is likely to revert back to the baseline. Efforts to recharge the relationship, such as seeking to incorporate variety into shared experiences, might help to counteract this process of habituation.

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Can You Stop the Hedonic Treadmill?

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It may be disheartening to think that even if somebody racks up achievements and accumulates wealth, she will inevitably revert to a happiness “set point”—always stuck on the treadmill rather than truly moving forward. While hedonic adaptation may not be something people can avoid entirely, research indicates that our typical levels of happiness are not, in fact, set in stone. And researchers of well-being have proposed some ways to hold on more tightly to gains in happiness when they arrive.

How can you reduce hedonic adaptation?

Since hedonic adaptation is thought to occur in part because of the repetition of experiences—seeing the same beautiful vista every day, perhaps, or having the same kinds of interactions with a friend or partner—one potential way to keep happiness from fading is to mix up the elements of one’s positive experiences so that they are less repetitive. Another approach is to try to appreciate such experiences even more by making an effort to pay attention to and savor what is enjoyable about them. 

How can I adapt more quickly to negative events?

The side of hedonic adaptation that pertains to negative experiences—where people often return to earlier levels of well-being after initially taking a hit—is comparable to the concept of resilience. Research has found that individuals can be remarkably capable of recovering from even major losses or traumas. The best ways to adapt to a negative experience will depend on its nature and intensity, but some general approaches to promoting resilience include treating oneself with compassion as well as seeking out sources of social support and opening up about hardship.

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