Hedonic Adaptation: Why You Are Not Happier

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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.

Hedonic adaptation is often referred to as “the hedonic treadmill” because we always end up where we started.

Hedonic adaptation is an adaptation-level phenomenon, which is a term that describes how humans become insensitive to new stimuli, and quickly readjust to an emotional baseline. Therefore, the stimulus needed to create an emotion—like happiness or excitement—needs to be more intense than the last stimulus in order for someone to feel its effects.

This article describes hedonic adaptation (the hedonic treadmill), gives examples, and describes ways to minimize hedonic adaption.

Overview

First off, it's helpful to differentiate the term hedonic from the concept of hedonism.

Hedonic Adaptation vs. Hedonism

Hedonic is a word that describes the pleasure or displeasure of a thing or experience; hedonism, on the other hand, is a concept in philosophy and psychology in which pleasure (and the avoidance of pain) is believed to be the main motivator of human behavior.

Two additional terms—hedonic consumption and hedonic value—relate to hedonic adaptation. Hedonic consumption refers to the practice of people purchasing goods or services for pleasure (once their basic needs are already fulfilled). Hedonic value refers to the personal value, based on the pleasure derived from something, that a person places on a good or service.

For instance, say you purchase a new stationary bike, which you believe will give you pleasure (hedonic consumption). The bike provides you with enjoyment (hedonic value), but over time, you become accustomed to the bike. One day, you realize it no longer brings you any additional enjoyment at all and you feel like you did before you even purchased the bike—this is hedonic adaptation.

There are many more ways that hedonic adaptation has been observed. Here are some additional 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.

A Question of Control

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%.

A full 50% of our happiness set-point, her research determined, is due to genetics, while 10% is affected primarily by circumstances like where we were born and to whom. This leaves 40% that is subject to our influence.

Other researchers have come up with slightly different numbers, but all have been roughly in this ballpark.

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,” which can bring quick bursts of—you guessed it—pleasure.

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."

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'll likely find it to be less pleasurable by the end of the week. 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.

Gratifications

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 effect 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.

Interestingly, 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. Gratifications include activities that are often thought of as hobbies, like creating art, learning a skill like karate, or even engaging in an activity like meditation. Most, if not all, gratifications can be great stress relievers.

Pleasures vs. Gratifications

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. But there are reasons why pleasures can be perfect for certain situations.

First, as mentioned earlier, they bring a quick lift in mood without a great deal of effort. This mood boost 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.

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 feeling stressed, it’s often easier to drink some nice tea as you rush (which can be pleasant and 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. That’s certainly better than nothing.

Altruism’s Effect on Hedonic Adaptation

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.

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, aim to organize your time with the 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 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. When you become slightly bored with your pleasures begin to vary them.)
  • 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.
  • 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 and help you increase your overall levels of happiness, meaningful activities can create these changes as well.
  • Savor your positive experiences. This is a great way to enjoy life more 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.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. One way to maximize the impact of your positive experiences is to write down the things you enjoyed that day. Aim for three a day. You'll be reliving these positive experiences as you write about them, and can relive them again when you read through your journal.
  • 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. Do what makes you happy and/or try something new.

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 set point by working pleasures, gratifications, and meaningful activities into our lives.

If you’re someone who is naturally happy, this focus on the positive 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does “hedonic” mean?

    The word "hedonic" is used to describe degrees of pleasantness or unpleasantness. It's common to confuse this word, however, with the word "hedonism." Hedonism refers to the philosophy that the goal of humans is to pursue pleasure and avoid pain.

  • What is the hedonic treadmill, and why is it called that?

    The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, refers to the phenomenon that things or situations only deliver a temporary surplus of happiness to human beings; ultimately, we return to the same level of happiness we experienced prior. It's called a hedonic treadmill because, like on a treadmill, we're moving but we are staying in the same place.

  • What are the long-term consequences of hedonic adaptation?

    People may constantly purchase things or seek new experiences, only to be disappointed that their level of happiness isn't permanently raised. On the other hand, hedonic adaptation is a useful trait that allows us to adapt to new situations and keeps us from living in a chronic state of arousal and stress.

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