Hedonic Adaptation: Why You Are Not Happier

How Hedonic Adaptation Robs You of Happiness—and How to Change That

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Hedonic adaptation, also known as “the hedonic treadmill,” is a concept studied by positive psychology researchers and others who focus on happiness and well-being that refers to people’s general tendency to return to a set level of happiness despite life’s ups and downs. It is known as “the hedonic treadmill” because of the seeming continuity of enjoying an increase in happiness and then getting back to the same level as before—a constant “treading water” experience where we always end up where we started.

Examples of Hedonic Adaptation

There are several different ways that this has been observed, and here are a few interesting examples:

  • People who win the lottery tend to return to roughly their original levels of happiness after the novelty of the win has worn off. (Some even end up less happy because of changes in relationships that can occur.) There is an initial influx of joy, of course, but after about a year, people in their day-to-day lives experience the same general sense of happiness.
  • The same is true for those who are in major accidents and lose the use of their legs. The change in ability can be devastating at first, but people generally tend to return to their pre-accident levels of happiness after the habituation period.
  • Research has found that the first bite of something delicious is experienced as more pleasurable than the third or the tenth. People become accustomed to the pleasure rather quickly and soon, the same mood-lifting little treat doesn’t bring the same influx of joy.

    How Much Control Do We Have?

    Many researchers have examined the hedonic treadmill phenomenon and have attempted to determine how much of our happiness is really under our control. Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky has examined this set-point and come up with a specific percentage: 40 percent. A full 50 percent of our happiness set-point, her research determined, is due to genetics, while 10 percent is affected primarily by circumstances like where we were born and to whom.

    This leaves 40 percent that is subject to our influence, which is certainly less than 100 percent but still a significant portion. Other researchers have come up with slightly different numbers, but all have been roughly in this ballpark.

    Activities That Are More and Less Affected By the Hedonic Treadmill

    Certain activities are more subject to hedonic adaptation—the happiness that they bring dissipates more quickly. Some of these activities are known by researchers and psychologists as “pleasures,” can bring quick bursts of—you guessed it—pleasure, which can also lead to longer-term happiness. Researcher Martin Seligman, one of the pioneers in this field, explained pleasures this way:

    "The pleasures are delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components, what philosophers call 'raw feels': ecstasy, thrills…delight, mirth, exuberance, and comfort. They are evanescent, and they involve little, if any, thinking."

    These pleasures can lift your mood and leave you feeling wonderful, but their effects can be relatively fleeting. What’s more, we get used to them relatively quickly. If you have the same meal every day for a week, for example, you may find it to be less pleasurable by the end of the week if you’re like most people.

    This is true for roller-coaster rides, fresh flowers, drinking tea, listening to a favorite song, watching videos of adorable animals, and many other pleasures. However, there are ways to prolong the enjoyment of life’s pleasures, and they’re well worth including in your life because they can lead to other benefits discussed in a minute.

    Seligman also researched gratifications, which are activities that get us into a feeling of “flow” where we don’t notice the passage of time, where we’re thoroughly engaged in what we’re doing, and sort of lost in the activity. This occurs most easily when we face a challenge that’s both fun and the right kind of challenge for our abilities: not too difficult lest we feel discouraged, but just difficult enough to keep us feeling challenged.

    Gratifications, as well as activities that present a strong sense of meaning to us, are more immune to the effects of hedonic adaptation.

    On the contrary, the more we engage in gratifications, the more we enjoy them! These are activities that require more effort and thought, but the payoff is higher as well. The more we engage, the more we enjoy. This includes activities that are often thought of as hobbies, like creating art, learning a skill like a karate, or even engaging in an activity like meditation. Most, if not all gratifications can be great stress relievers.

    Knowing that pleasures are fleeting in their effects may make them seem less worth the effort than other activities like gratifications that can bring more lasting results. There are reasons why they can be perfect for certain situations, however. First, as mentioned earlier, they bring a quick lift in mood without a great deal of effort. This is actually quite valuable because there is significant research that shows that a lift in mood can lead to a chain reaction of positive feelings and increased resilience; basically, pleasures can create an "upward spiral of positivity," and this can lead to greater happiness and resilience to stress. For the little effort they require, this is a pretty big payoff.

    Second, gratifications do take more effort, so when you only have a few minutes or a very limited amount of energy, pleasures are often the simpler and more accessible option. For example, if you’re running errands and having a stressful day, it’s often easier than getting a nice tea and drinking it as you rush (which can create a pleasant experience and can diminish stress) than getting out some painting supplies and honing your craft, even if you may benefit more from the gratification of painting than the pleasure of tea. Sometimes you may only have time for tea, and that’s certainly better than nothing.

    Meaningful activities like volunteering for a good cause or helping a friend, incidentally, seem to carry great benefits as well. Seligman found that these may take a significant amount of energy and may not always be enjoyable while a person is engaged in them (they can be challenging), but they bring lasting results in terms of overall happiness and inner peace. Altruism really does have many benefits to the giver as well as the recipients. Meaningful acts should not be overlooked, particularly because they seem to transcend the hedonic treadmill quite effectively.

    How to Minimize Hedonic Adaptation

    Hedonic adaptation is a fact of life, but when we are aware of how it works and how it functions in our lives, we are more able to work around the negatives and engage in activities that are more immune to the stifling effects of the hedonic treadmill. The following are some ways in which you can move away from the limiting effects of hedonic adaptation and engage in activities that can actually create a greater level of happiness in your life:

    • Be sure your life includes several pleasures, and try to plan for them throughout your day. Get that cup of coffee. Call that friend for a quick laugh. If you feel you don’t have time for too many of these pleasures, see if you can organize your time with a specific intention of including them.
    • Rotate your pleasures so that they always feel new. Just as fresh sheets feel more wonderful than your week-old sheets, a rotation of pleasures is more enjoyable and fresh than the same ones for days in a row. (This may be different if you enjoy the ritual of certain activities, but it’s generally true. Keep an eye on how much you enjoy various pleasures and when you become slightly bored with them and you’ll know what to do.)
    • Be sure you make time for hobbies! If you plan a class once a week, this is one of the most effective ways to benefit from gratifications. You’re sharing what you enjoy with others, you’re putting it on your calendar so you’re more likely to make time for it, and you’re able to deepen your abilities and watch yourself grow. It doesn’t really matter what the hobby is; as long as it’s one that you enjoy, you’ll benefit from it, and these benefits will extend into the rest of your life.
    • Find time for others. This creates greater meaning in your life, and that can create greater happiness. Just as gratifications can work outside of the hedonic treadmill to a large extent, and can help you increase your overall levels of happiness to the full extent that we’re able to change our happiness setpoint, meaningful activities can create these changes as well.
    • Savor your positive experiences. This is a great way to enjoy life more, to maximize the positive in your life, without needing anything else to change. It just takes a bit of focused attention and the effects of pleasures, gratifications, and meaningful activities can all expand. One way to savor these experiences is to keep a journal about the at the end of the day, a few days a week—write about three things you enjoyed that day. Then you'll be reliving these positive experiences as you write about them, and can relive them again when you read through your journals.
    • Keep an eye on your happiness levels. If you feel that you could be happier, make time for whatever you can do to lift your mood. If you need a lift, do what makes you happy. And if you can, try something new. If you’re someone who is naturally happy, this can help you to feel happier than you would. If you’re someone who’s naturally less happy or who faces a lot of challenges, this extra attention to minimizing hedonic adaptation can help you to live a more fulfilling life.

    A Word From Verywell

    Hedonic adaptation—that old hedonic treadmill that we're all on—is part of us (and it keeps us grounded) but we can still increase our happiness setpoint by working pleasures, gratifications, and meaningful activities into our lives by engaging in the right activities at the right time.