Can you remember a time you were dreaming about something, maybe a new car, a promotion at work, moving into a nicer house or finding a partner to share life with? Do you remember fantasizing about how happy you would be?
And then, when you finally got it, that happiness boost didn’t last that long or wasn’t as intense as you’d imagined, right? Most of us experienced this before. So what’s this all about?
The Hedonic Treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation) is a theory that proposes that people return to their 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 Charles Spurgeon, which beautifully supplements Rousseau’s:
“It’s not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness.”
– Charles Spurgeon
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A little history
Two psychologists, Brickman and Campbell, first published 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 only 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.
Happiness Set point
First of all, science showed that our circumstances don’t really account for the major part of our happiness. The Happiness Set Point refers to the genetically determined predisposition for happiness that is responsible for about 50% of the differences between you and everyone else.
In her book “The How of Happiness” researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky says that:
- If you struggle with a low set point, meaning, you tend to gravitate towards sadness or depression, don’t be so hard on yourself, to an extent you’re dealing with a stacked deck.
- Still 50% as high as it is, is not 100%, so there’s plenty of leeway for improvement. Your actions, thoughts and attitudes account for 40% of your happiness, which is quite significant.
The Hedonic Treadmill states that regardless of what happens to someone, their level of happiness will return to their baseline after the event. What does this mean? It means that if you get married, move into a new house, get a promotion, loose a job or suffer an accident, for example, after a certain period of time you’re likely to return to your set point.
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, habituation kicks in….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.
Brickman and Campbell first described the Hedonic Treadmill in 1971 stating that processes similar to sensory adaptation occur when people emotionally respond to different life events.
They suggested that our emotional system goes back to the level prior to the event, after some time. This finding was extremely significant and became central for scientists studying happiness.
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 the study: “Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative?”
The research 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 effects didn’t reveal long lasting and both groups shortly reverted to their previous level of happiness.
In the original treadmill theory however, the authors (Brickman and Campbell) proposed that people immediately react to good and bad events but in a short time return to neutrality.
Here’s where things get more complex, see many times one key finding of a particular study catches momentum and takes off, leaving behind multiple nuances that are worth understanding further.
If the original theory was correct, all the efforts we undertake to increase happiness are pointless and we’re doomed to constantly return to neutral.
But further research led by Ed Diener has refined the initial findings and brought greater understanding into the subtilties of this process.
Here are the 5 points to take into consideration:
- The set point is not neutral
- The set point is individualized
- We have multiple set points
- Happiness can change
- Individual differences in adaptation
The set point is not neutral
The first theory defended that people return to neutral after a significant life event but years of research into it show that part of the theory to be incorrect. In fact, most of us are happy most of the times.
After reviewing the studies Diener & Diener found that approximately three quarters of the samples reported a balance affect (positive and negative moods and emotions) above neutral.
Even in diverse populations including the Amish and the African Maasai the well-being levels was above neutral.
So even if people adapt and return to a previous point, it’s a positive rather than a neutral one.
The set point is individualized
Research followed by the first publication of the theory shows that even if everyone has a set point, it varies significantly among people. First of all, personality traits have a saying in it and second well-being is moderately heritable. So, different personality traits may predispose individuals to different levels of well-being.
We have multiple set points
The notion of a set point leads in the direction of a single baseline item. But more recent work by Lucas, Diener and Suh sheds some light into this and reveals that happiness is composed of different factors that contribute to well-being and these factors can move in different directions sometimes.
So on occasion, you could have both positive and negative emotions in decline but life satisfaction on the rise, the basic idea here is that different forms of well-being can move in different directions at times.
Happiness can change
One of the conclusions often drawn from the first study is that no matter what we do we can’t affect much change into our long term level of well-being and life satisfaction. Research on this is scarce, but looking to the well-being levels across nations might help clarify this.
If there are markedly differences in well being across nations and these differences can be predicted from objective characteristics of those nations, doesn’t that mean that stable circumstances can have a long term impact on well-being?
For example, one of the studies on this subject found that the wealth and human rights of nations were strong predictors of a nation’s well being. Also, researchers at The Economist found that a great part of the variance (85%) in well being could be explained by 9 factors including: gross domestic product per person, life expectancy at birth, political stability, and divorce rates.
So the question is can our long term average level of happiness change? To answer this question Fujita and Diener designed a longitudinal study that examined changes in the baseline level of well being over a period of 17 years in a large sample group of germans.
They found that even though there was significant stability in the happiness assessments, 24% of participants did experience significant change to their happiness level and 9% changed by two standard deviations or more. So it seems that long lasting change is possible.
“The very good news is there is quite a number of internal circumstances (…) under your voluntary control. If you decide to change them (none of these changes come without real effort), your level of happiness is likely to increase lastingly.”
Individual differences in adaptation
Another allegation from the original theory is that adaptation to events happens quite the same way to everyone. But research shows that people don’t all adapt the same way to the same circumstances, there are individual differences in rate and extent of adaptation to the same event.
For example, studies into the adaptation to marriage predicted that the happiest people would react more strongly to positive events. But the results showed otherwise, that less satisfied individuals were more likely to benefit from marriage in the long term. Not only were their reactions more intense as they persisted long into time.
Can we escape the treadmill?
Most research on meditation so far focuses on Mindfulness Meditation, however, because of the specific interest in eliciting positive emotions, this time researchers resorted to Loving Kindness Meditation. LKM is a form of meditation that evokes and magnifies feelings of warmth and care for the self and others.
To practice LKM find a comfortable seated posture, taking a couple of breaths to settle in, then focus on your heart region and contemplate a person for whom you feel warm and tender feelings. Next, extend those feelings to yourself and then to an ever wider circle of others.
Researchers believe that this kind of mind training practice can not only change passing emotional states but also help reshape enduring personality traits by helping us learn about the nature of our own minds and busting misleading assumptions about the factors that contribute to our happiness and well-being.
The Hedonic Treadmill states that despite the fact that circumstances like winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic alter our happiness level temporarily, we quickly adjust back to a fixed emotional set point.
Is this an important concept to grasp and retain when in comes to understanding happiness? Absolutely.
More recent research however, challenges the assumption that adaptation is inevitable and shows that adaptation processes may vary across events, individuals and even in the same individuals across time.
Revealing that change in our baseline level of happiness is possible, our baseline is positive and not neutral and that we have multiple set points that might move in opposite directions.
These studies provide hope and proof that interventions to increase happiness can be effective and changes might be targeted not only at an individual level but organizational and even social level.
One way to get off the treadmill is to practice Loving Kindness Meditation, participants of the study that spent about one hour per week practicing this form of meditation found their positive emotions enhanced in a wide range of different situations and especially interacting with others.
Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2009). Social psychology and human nature, (2nd ed.). Boston, MA, United States: Cengage Learning.
Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917–927. doi:10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1997.
Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist, 61(4), 305–314.
Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5)
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York: Penguin.
Rousseau, J.-J., Cress, D. A., & Miller, J. (1992). Discourse on the origin of inequality. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.