The Hedonic Treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation) is a theory that proposes that people stay at about the same level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them. Rousseau beautifully explains hedonic adaptation in his second discourse with the following words:
“Since these conveniences by becoming habitual had almost entirely ceased to be enjoyable, and at the same time degenerated into true needs, it became much more cruel to be deprived of them than to possess them was sweet, and men were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them.”
– Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Discourse on Inequality (published in 1754)
Before we dive further into the psychological concept of the hedonic treadmill, let’s look at the following quote from Aristotle, which beautifully supplements Rousseau’s:
“We should consider what is natural not in things which are depraved but in those which are rightly ordered according to nature.”
– Aristotle in chapter 2 of Politics
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A little history
Two psychologists, Brickman and Campbell, first published something about this concept in 1971 with their essay, “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society,” via the New York: Academic Press. During the 70’s, the concept was known as hedonic adaptation. It was not until twenty years later that Michael Eysenck likened hedonic adaptation to that of a treadmill; a more modern and understandable example. Thus, the hedonic treadmill was born.
The Hedonic Treadmill states that regardless of what happens to a person, their level of happiness will return to their baseline after the event. This does not mean that if you get promoted at work that you won’t celebrate or feel good.
Similarly, if the person that you’ve been romancing after agrees to be official, The Hedonic Treadmill does not say you will not be happy with that person.
Instead, applying the concept of the hedonic treadmill would be more like this. There is the initial spike in happiness, or sadness; however, as time goes on, the feeling of happiness or sadness caused by an event starts to dissipate. After some time has passed, you are back at the level of happiness that you were at before. (See graphic to the right for a visual)
A possible misattribution of this theory could be the relation of the amount of good things happening in a period of time and positive emotions that are experienced. If you’re fortunate enough to experience an abundance of positive events in a spaced out, but relatively short period of time, the constant influx of happiness may lead a person to believe that their general happiness has increased. However, that’s not what the research says.
One of the most notable examples of the hedonic treadmill is a study that examined people who won the lottery for a large amount of money and victims in accidents that resulted in paralysis including quadriplegic and paraplegic victims. In 1987, Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman published research, “Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative?”
The researched revealed that, in the long term, neither group appeared to be happier than the other. Of course, at first there were strong emotional reactions of happiness and sadness, respectively, but any long lasting effects from the lottery or the accidents were not typical.
Additionally, there was another study done that studied the lottery winners and a control group’s habits of buying lottery tickets. The follow up study was aimed at ensuring validity of the first study’s results.
To ensure validity, the researchers looked at the happiness levels of the control and experimental groups and two other major explanations for the happiness levels between the control group and the winners.
The first alternate explanation is that it was not the effect of the lottery at all, but the propensity of lottery ticket buyers to be dissatisfied with everyday events. After all, the mundanity of life was enough to motivate them to partake in a potentially life changing wager.
However, the second reason shifts the focus. The second reason proposed that, it was how salient that the idea was made in the study. The experiment group knew fully that the purpose of the study focused on their winnings; whereas the control group was told that the study was on everyday life.
The conclusion was that the research published reinforced the first study. From comparing the happiness levels of the ticket buyers and non buyers, they found that there was no significant difference that would skew the results.
If you’re interested, you can read the research paper for a more in-depth view of the study, linked here.
One last thing that is important to note. The research was never found to be inconclusive or invalid; however, upon the creation of this article, it does not seem like this study has been replicated. As far as research goes, that does not mean that it is not valid, it just means that to be looked at with less skepticism, replications should be done.
The hedonic treadmill is the concept that people have the same happiness for life. Events in a person’s life do not play as big of a role as many originally thought. The Hedonic Treadmill applies more to long term happiness than short term happiness. Although there was a study done in the past, there seems to be a lack of research on this topic.
ReferencesBaumeister, Roy F., and Brad J. Bushman. "Chapter 6/Hedonic Treadmill." Social Psychology and Human Nature. Brickman, P., R. Janoff-Bulman, and D. Coates. Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative? 1978. Http://pages.ucsd.edu/~nchristenfeld/Happiness_Readings_files/Class%203%20-%20Brickman%201978.pdf. Journal of Personality and Social PSychology, 1978. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. Rousseau, J. J., 1754, What is the origin of inequality among men, and is it authorized by natural law? Aristotle, 4th century BC, Politics