If you are serious about understanding and mastering the art of happiness, which I’ve come to learn and respect that you are, the hedonic treadmill is a topic that you must absolutely be aware of.
If you haven’t heard of the term ‘hedonic treadmill’ before, this article aims to present exactly – from the ground up – what it is and why it is important.
Essentially, it’s the notion that human happiness adapts to our experience, i.e. our increase or decrease in happiness after an event eventually returns to a ‘happiness set point’ because we psychologically adapt to that new experience, whatever it may be.
The purpose of this article is to provide a deep understanding of the principles, not only of the term known as ‘hedonic treadmill’ but the notion of happiness being adaptable and the inherent underlying reasons why this may be.
In doing so I hope to empower you to move forward with a much more thorough understanding of happiness so you can prepare and respond to current and future events with clarity and peace of mind.
Important: Please download the accompanying 4-Week Hedonic Treadmill Implementation Worksheet to begin putting into practice the strategies for long term happiness, starting today.
What Exactly is the Hedonic Treadmill?
The first use of the word hedonic treadmill was well over 30 years ago in a research paper entitled “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society”, discussing the tendency of people’s happiness to remain at a relatively stable baseline, despite external ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ events. However, the notion of happiness being responsive to events and returning to a baseline has been heard of for centuries, often discussed in philosophical and spiritual circles.
Very frequently we hear of great sages discussing the pursuit of happiness as futile and nonsensical, putting happiness in line with all other worldly pursuits; temporary in nature and therefore impermanent and unnecessary, unable to add to our true, authentic happiness.
The empirical study of happiness brings a new angle of clarity to the notion of sustained levels of happiness and understanding this can bring an incredible level of joy and improve our decision making abilities.
We will continue by diving into the extensive research we have found to date on the hedonic treadmill and then proceed to explain how exactly this will benefit you in your day-to-day experience.
1. Does happiness remain fixed, or can it continue to increase or decrease indefinitely?
i) Personal experience
The first natural question is: is there any evidence that our happiness has a tendency to initially adapt to circumstances, and then return to, what could be called, a pre-determined level?
The best evidence, as always, is to review your own personal experience. It’s worth spending a minute thinking this through. Can you remember an enormously positive event that happened in your life? Such as obtaining a desired job, meeting the ‘ideal partner’, earning a pleasing amount of money or obtaining your first home?
There’s little doubt that these moments were happy times for you. However, thinking about them in hindsight, would you say you’ve become permanently happier since that moment?
Before I continue, I am aware that there are some events which will, in fact, have a long term positive and negative impact on your life, which I will explore later in the article. However, when speaking generally, what is your personal experience on this? We can agree here that whilst it feels like a huge achievement at the time we make these accomplishments, these feelings are short lived.
Let’s look at the opposite end of the scale. Do you remember a time you didn’t get into the college or university of your dreams? Or the time you didn’t succeed at your first job interview? What about when you failed your first driving test, or at your first relationship?
There are events we all go through and circumstances we all find ourselves in at times which we would deem less than ideal. But years on, how do you feel now?
Humans are adaptable creatures; we are malleable both psychologically and emotionally.
ii) An important study
One of the most well known studies on happiness adaptation is entitled “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?”, an eye-grabbing title in itself.
This was a pivotal and one of the preliminary studies in the field. Researchers interviewed three groups of people:
Group 1: Lottery winners [22 members]
Group 2: Control group [22 members]
Group 3: Paralyzed accident victims [29 members]
Note: As the research stated, there were no significant differences in the background characteristics of the participants of this study.
The participants were sent letters and asked to respond to questions about their happiness, namely:
a) How happy they felt before the events (for the control group, how happy they felt 6 months ago).
b) How happy they feel now (at this stage in their life, not at the current moment).
c) How happy they expected to be, a few years in the future.
The results are displayed below:[Reference: “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?”]
As you can see here, positive and negative events do have an impact on how we feel at present, but not as much on our long term happiness. This study was great because it looked at both types of events, and addresses the two ways in which we adapt:
a) Contrast: comparing our new situation to events in the past, and;
b) Habituation: how we become used to new events, and over what period of time.
We can see here that both elements play a part when positive or negative situations arise. As the author explains:
“While winning $1 million or encountering a crippling accident may be the most extreme events participants have actually endured, these occurrences do not appear to be the ultimate limits on the subjective range of pleasurable experiences that respondents considered in rating their happiness”.
a) Happiness levels vary depending on events and circumstances.
b) Happiness levels can level back to a ‘norm’ over a period of time.
c) Comparison to past events and becoming habituated towards new events allows for the ‘adaptation’ of happiness.
2. Can happiness be measured?
i) Defining happiness
After reading all this, I can bet a part of you is thinking; “You talk of happiness as if it’s a financial metric. How exactly are we defining and measuring ‘happiness’ here?”.
I agree with you that happiness is definitely not black and white. In fact, the best definition of happiness I’ve come across to date is:
“The subjective state of well-being”.
And, of course, yes – we are agreeing it is subjective. This sub-topic in itself is worthy of an entire book, but it’s important to briefly explain how happiness is measured.
ii) How it’s done and why it works
By and large, happiness is measured via questionnaires. There are some well defined questionnaires and surveys and they look to elicit a participants perspective on two things:
a) Their happiness levels at the current time of enquiry.
b) Their happiness when considering their life as a whole, or, ‘life satisfaction’.
The reason this can be useful is because it gives participants a chance to rate their happiness on the same scale used by all the other participants in the same study. Usually this is in the form of a written answer to a specific question, or giving a number on a specific scale.
iii) Limitations in measuring happiness
One of the largest and most important limitations in this field of study is the variations in peoples responses, namely; an individuals perception of their answer.
To illustrate this, let’s look at an example. Let’s say two people are asked to rate their happiness today between 1 and 100. All their characteristic such as age, sex, ethnicity, and location are the same. Let’s also say, hypothetically, the first respondent has had a traumatic car crash in his past, as well as the loss of a parent, moved country in their youth away from their friends and had the misfortune of living through a life-threatening tornado.
The second person’s most negative memories were: being rejected by the person they first had a crush on, having quite a bad episode of food poisoning many years ago, and failing their university exams which required them to do a re-take.
On a scale from 1 to 100, 10 would mean very different things to both people. The first respondent would think of 10 to be nearer towards the level of happiness associated with the death of a loved one. The second would think of 10 as being the level of happiness associated with having a dodgy stomach after a late night pizza.
iv) Finding a fine balance
One way we look to override this flaw is to put a high priority on sample size. Essentially, if we have a large enough group of people to study we are likely to negate the rare occurrences of unexpected or largely varied results.
Let’s take another strange but applicable example: In school you may remember doing what’s known as the ‘bleep test’. If we have 5 kids run the bleep test and measure their score (how long they run/how many levels they progressed through), we would be able to get an idea of the average score of these 5 students when completing a bleep test.
If we then decided to conduct an experiment that looked into the effect of a specific commercial energy tablet on the time it took for students to complete the bleep test, we would ask the students to take the tablet and then do the bleep test again, and compare the two results. If we just experimented with the 5 students, 1 of them may have an unexpected reaction to the tablet. At this stage we can’t get a clear picture of the impact of this tablet, seeing as 1 unexpected results only leaves 4 testable results.
If the 4 that took the tablet all had a better bleep test score after taking the tablet, we would still be hesitant to say the tablet is effective, because it’s only 4 out of a possible 5. But that would be different if it was 400,000 out of 500,000.
Calculations are made to determine whether a result is ‘statistically significant’ which is the “low probability that an observed effect would have occurred due to chance”. This is often done by ensuring the study is being conducted with a large enough group of participants. Similarly, if we measure the happiness of 1 million people and 900,000 people all said the exact same thing, I would be keen to listen dearly and put whatever we find into practice for experiential confirmation.
Although, yes, happiness is definitely subjective, and even anomalies inherently mean no one answer fits all, we are privileged to have data on happiness and it can often prove very helpful.
a) Happiness is subjective and complex.
b) Happiness is often measured by obtaining responses from people via questionnaires.
c) Results on happiness questionnaires are improved with large sample sizes.
d) The increased focus of research on happiness is giving us a clearer picture of what it takes to live a happy life.
3. Are there any life events that permanently affect happiness levels?
i) Is our ‘happiness set point’ 100% fixed and immovable?
Before considering whether there are any events at all which can permanently impact happiness, we must know whether the ‘happiness set point’ which we return to is completely stationary during our entire lives or whether it can vary. This is where the study of the human hedonic treadmill becomes fascinating.
In another beautiful study entitled “Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill, Revising the Adaptation Theory of Well-Being”, a detailed analysis was undertaken on the research to date and took the previous notion of the hedonic treadmill to a new level of understanding.
The authors confirmed that a neutral, pre-defined happiness set-point is not the final explanation of the hedonic treadmill. As we have previously discussed, happiness can be expressed as positive emotion in the present and/or perception of how life as a whole is going. These both allow for different happiness set points, depending on the nature of the question being asked, and therefore it has been suggested there may be multiple set points such as;
a) Subjective well-being set point.
b) Life satisfaction set point.
The notion of a ‘one size fits all’ happiness set point, therefore, must be adapted to take into account the varied ways we experience happiness and the context in which negative and positive experiences occur.
A more accurate way to describe our happiness set point, as this study suggests, is to refer to a happiness range in which we vary between over time. What’s vital for you to understand, knowing this, is what you can do to ensure you are within the upper half of your happiness range over the long-term. First, let’s look at some research exploring the factors which cause a prolonged, noticeable negative impact on our happiness.
ii) Which events affect our long-term happiness negatively?
A series of studies have been done which have looked precisely at the issues we’ve raised above; how certain life events affect our happiness over the long run.
You can see from the graph below that events such as marriage, whilst providing a large spike in happiness leading up to the wedding events, does cause a permanent increase in happiness. Our happiness tends to return to baseline within 5 years.
When compared to some of life’s most undesirable situations, we can see happiness does not return to baseline so easily:[Reference: “Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill, Revising the Adaptation Theory of Well-Being”. This graph is for clear visual representation of data, where 0 = year of event]
Those who have been widowed, become unemployed or are divorced all demonstrated a long term reduction in happiness. Those who experienced widowhood showed the greatest amount of adaptation, with regards to the difference between low and high life satisfaction before and after the event. In this case the adaptation took 8 years, and still remained incomplete.
a) Our happiness does adapt.
b) There is no fixed happiness set point.
c) Happiness varies within a given range.
d) Life events can have a long-term impact on our happiness.
e) Although adaptation still occurs, some negative events can cause the adaptation to take many years, and happiness may not fully return to baseline.
4. Which events have the largest impact on our happiness?
Preliminary research suggests that it’s not specific events that have the largest impact on our happiness but the beginnings and endings of significant life changes. One study suggests that the changes in life that have the largest positive impact are:
a) Starting a new relationship [highest positive impact].
b) Employment-related gains, as opposed to employment status.
c) Women who became pregnant, as opposed to ‘being a parent’.
d) Personal educational-related events, e.g graduating University.
The same study found the following life changes had the largest negative impact on happiness:
a) The end of a relationship [highest negative impact].
b) The death of a parent.
How to Get Off the Hedonic Treadmill
Important: Please download the accompanying 4-Week Hedonic Treadmill Implementation Worksheet to begin putting into practice the strategies for long term happiness, starting today.
Now that you are getting a clearer idea of what exactly the hedonic treadmill is, it would be useful to look into what we can do to reduce compliance to the treadmill.
If we take a step back and look at this topic from an experiential, personal perspective, we could argue there are two fundamental points of experience the hedonic treadmill seeks to explain, namely;
a) “I’ll get over it with time” for negative events (which we often do)
b) “I shouldn’t take this for granted” for positive events (which we often do)
Point (a) is a skill we have developed that we would not want to change, as such. Our ability to naturally overcome negative events can be enormously helpful and useful, as we all go through these unwanted times in life.The hedonic treadmill therefore can be reassuring to those experiencing the negative changes within their life.
However, point (b) is not ideal. When we experience a peak in our happiness, we would prefer to stay at this level and not be brought down to a lower level of happiness.We want to be able to maximise our chances of happiness and squeeze as much enjoyment out of all positive events. In regard to this second point, it is therefore useful to learn how to reduce our compliance with the hedonic treadmill.
Our goal, therefore, is to engage in activities that prevent us from doing point (b).
i) Being kind and helping others
The practice of helping others and being consciously caring of people has been confirmed to have enormous positive effects on personal well-being.
One study found that those who displayed charitable actions developed stronger relationships with others, developed an appreciation for their good fortune, allowed them to focus on the positives in negative times and allowed for a heightened sense of compassion for their community.
The benefits are long-listed and also long-term.
Research has even begun to find that those with a more charitable nature develop a stronger physiological resistance to viruses. It’s become clear that being a considerate person is not only helpful to society but also genetically beneficial to oneself.
It’s important to know that the amount you give is not what’s important, it’s that you just do.
In fact, studies have found that giving as little as $5 away can produce ‘non-trivial gains in happiness over a given day’ and even that small acts of kindness can have a larger impact on happiness than big ones.
ii) Savouring the moment
Appreciation is arguably one of the most important contributors to human happiness, and as a daily practice can produce miracles.
Specifically – when discussing the hedonic treadmill – taking the time to fully appreciate and be thankful for the present moment for whatever it is, forces us to not take things for granted.
Because of this, we remain within our upper happiness range, and do not set back to baseline once a small or large positive event occurs in our life.
An experiment in which participants were asked to “write down three things that went well each day and their causes every night for one week. In addition, provide a causal explanation for each good thing” found this:[Reference: Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions. This graph is for clear visual representation of data where the y=happiness]
As you can see, the practice of consciously writing things you’re thankful for, more specifically three things that went well today, can result in a long term increase in happiness of 10%.
Also note that the participants were asked to engage in this activity for one week, and as you can see the benefits remained even at the six month period.
iii) Valuing and nourishing important relationships
I’ve said the exact same answer every time when asked what is the one thing that can be done to enhance one’s long term happiness:
Nourish and value important relationships.
I use the acronym ‘NAVIR’ to remember and share this easily, something I would recommend keeping at top-of-mind for future enquiry.
Time and time again research has confirmed that those who experience the highest levels of happiness over the long term are those with rich relationships.
a) Happiness is contagious and spreads.
b) If you are happy you will affect other people’s happiness, even up to 3 degrees of separation.
c) Those with nourishing relationships with parents grow up to have happy relationships.
d) Relational well-being has a substantial impact on longevity of life.
e) Supportive relationships help reduce psychological and emotional stress dramatically.
The list is endless.
No wonder that when it comes to the hedonic treadmill, those with “warm relationships” were least likely to maintain compliance.
iv) The pursuit of meaningful goals
Not the pursuit of goals, in general. The pursuit of meaningful goals. This is because the aimless pursuit of goals that are not personal or intrinsically motivating will not yield strong benefits for your happiness.
The journey of achieving goals which have been constructed by you alone for personal reasons will contribute massively to your long term happiness.
There are a variety of reasons why this is.
Firstly, research has confirmed that pursuing intrinsically motivating goals makes us feel like we are engaging in highly worthwhile activities.
In addition, many long-term goals involve communicating, working with and growing with other people. As we now know, this in itself adds tremendously to our well-being.
Furthermore, studies show that goals which are intrinsically motivating are ones which we savour dearly. In doing so, we enjoy the process as well as the results. Being present and thankful, enjoying the moment as well as knowing it’s a part of something personally valuable is important to our happiness.
As you can see, the pursuit of important goals actually welcome the prior three methods for overcoming the hedonic treadmill in abundance. When combined with the practice of kindness and gratitude, along with prioritising relational well being, goals give us a very strong chance of leading a flourished life.
Happiness is truly a topic not to be deemed weak or ‘fluffy’. We now understand more than ever before about what constitutes a joyful and meaningful life and applying this knowledge can be immediate, practical and effective.
As humans we are known to adapt and learn. We become familiar with both positive and negative events and thus our happiness, depending on context and history, returns to a prior state, which tends to remain within a given range.
Research in this field is still relatively new and there is a lot still to be studied. In addition, the issue of obtaining accurate and reliable data on the happiness of individuals and communities remains an ongoing challenge.
At this stage, we do know there are some key habits we can adopt that will make a difference.
To increase our happiness and avoid compliance with the hedonic treadmill, we can practice gratitude and service to others, take the time to value and nourish important relationships, and pursue meaningful goals.
To learn a practical way to apply these strategies into your daily life immediately, download the 4-Week Hedonic Treadmill Implementation Worksheet.
[Header image: Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens]