Be honest: For how long does a new coat, handbag, car, or even a promotion or success at work make you genuinely happy?
If these kinds of objects or events would have a long-term effect on our wellbeing, our happiness would be constantly compounding, and our baseline happiness levels would steadily increase, right?
Sadly, that is not the case.
In our pursuit of happiness, we often find ourselves caught in a cycle known as the hedonic treadmill. This phenomenon, also known as hedonic adaptation, suggests that despite experiencing positive events or acquiring desirable possessions, our happiness levels tend to return to a stable baseline over time.
Is our individual happiness level fixed, then, no matter what we do, buy, or achieve? For many of us, this is a deeply uncomfortable thought.
Or could it be possible to escape the hedonic treadmill and increase our happiness and wellbeing over time? Let’s explore this intriguing question further.
Empirical evidence suggests that we have a tendency to adapt to both positive and negative life events. Often, this results in a return to our preexisting level of happiness, known as our happiness setpoint. In his novel Enduring Love, Ian McEwan (1997, p. 141) captures this idea succinctly:
“People often remark on how quickly the extraordinary becomes commonplace… We are highly adaptive creatures. The predictable becomes, by definition, background, leaving the attention uncluttered, the better to deal with the random or unexpected.”
Brickman and Campbell introduced the metaphor of the hedonic treadmill in their 1971 paper “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.”
For their research, Brickman and Campbell (1971) relied on stimulus psychology and models of automatic habituation. According to their findings, we generally experience short-term spikes in happiness following positive events (such as winning the lottery). Eventually, however, our levels of subjective wellbeing return to our pre-event state baseline.
Imagine buying your dream car—a shiny, brand-new luxury vehicle. Initially, you are overwhelmed with joy and satisfaction. The car’s powerful engine and luxurious features bring you immense pleasure, and you feel a surge of happiness each time you get behind the wheel.
However, over time, the novelty wears off, and the car becomes a familiar part of your daily routine. You no longer experience the same level of excitement and delight you felt during the early days of ownership.
According to the hedonic treadmill theory, we adapt both to positive or negative life events, and our happiness levels eventually return to our initial set point.
Brickman and Campbell studied a group of lottery winners and a group of people who experienced terrible accidents with life-changing effects. In their 1971 study, their finding was that “lottery winners and accident victims both returned to their pre-event happiness levels within a few months or years” (as cited in Diener et al., 2006, p. 306).
Hedonic adaptation, then, involves the restoration of baseline levels of happiness following positive or negative life events.
It follows that material possessions or external circumstances alone cannot sustainably increase or decrease our long-term happiness.
Sheldon and Lucas (2014, p. 4) define hedonic adaptation as “the tendency to cease noting a particular stimulus over time so that the stimuli no longer have the emotional effects they once had.”
In other words: If we are exposed to the same stimuli over time, the quality of our experience and our response to these stimuli change.
Various psychological mechanisms contribute to hedonic adaptation. The most prominent one is the process of cognitive adaptation. It suggests that we adjust our expectations and aspirations to align with our current circumstances (Frederick & Loewenstein, 1999).
Additionally, social comparison theory suggests that we have a tendency to compare our own situation with others’, which can lead to a recalibration of subjective wellbeing (Wills, 1981).
The peak–end rule proposes that we tend to remember and evaluate experiences based on our most intense point and the final moments, rather than considering the overall duration of the experience (Kahneman et al., 1993). Personality traits, such as neuroticism and extraversion, have been found to impact hedonic adaptation, too (Lucas, 2007).
More specific factors that impact the adaptation processes
There are also more specific factors that influence the duration and scale of the adaptation process. The impact of life events on adaptation varies depending on their intensity, novelty, and duration (Diener et al., 2006). Researchers have also highlighted the role of individual differences in genetic predispositions and environmental factors in shaping hedonic adaptation, such as socioeconomic status (Lykken & Tellegen, 1996; Diener & Seligman, 2004).
More recently, Klausen et al. (2022) pointed out some problems with common conceptions of hedonic adaptation in their thought-provoking paper “Many Faces of Hedonic Adaptation.”
They argue that the notion of ‘stimulus’ used in most adaptation theories is based on sensory stimuli but then expanded to include various non-sensory stimuli. Klausen et al. (2022) propose that we need a more complex and diverse concept of the nature of adaptation and should consider switching to a hybrid and process-oriented theory of wellbeing.
Concepts such as selective attention, judgment, articulation, contextualization, and background assumption, as well as coping strategies and social support, need to be considered in theories of hedonic adaptation (Klausen et al., 2022).
Finally, we may also wonder whether the treadmill is a helpful metaphor to begin with. The image suggests being trapped in a cycle of pointless, effortful activities that, quite literally, get us nowhere.
Similarly, the idea of a fixed happiness baseline that is predetermined by our genes or personality type may make us feel hopeless about our agency, efficacy, and ability to change our mental wellbeing. Why bother taking positive, transformative action, we may think, if our happiness level is always already set?
The Hedonic Adaptation Prevention (HAP) Model
These kinds of questions are precisely why researchers have begun to explore ways of counteracting the effects of hedonic adaptation.
Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005) have proposed the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention (HAP) model, suggesting that intentional efforts to prevent adaptation can prolong the positive effects of life events. “People may be able to actively prolong or enhance their happiness by preventing themselves from fully adapting to positive events” (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005, p. 120).
According to the HAP model, there are three primary components that influence our happiness set point and capacity to prevent hedonic adaptation.
1. Genetic predispositions
The HAP model acknowledges that genetics play a role in determining our baseline level of happiness. Some of us naturally possess a more positive disposition, making us less prone to hedonic adaptation.
However, this genetic component only accounts for a portion of our overall happiness, and it is the least amenable to change. The HAP model suggests that we should focus on the factors that are clearly within our control to maximize wellbeing.
2. Intentional activities
The HAP model emphasizes the importance of intentional activities to prevent or slow down hedonic adaptation. Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) propose that activities such as expressing gratitude, practicing kindness, and setting and pursuing meaningful goals can lead to sustained increases in happiness.
Another point highlighted in the HAP model is the importance of variety in intentional activities. As Lyubomirsky et al. (2005, p. 123) explain, “When people engage in different activities, they are less likely to habituate to any single one.”
By regularly introducing new experiences and diversifying activities, we can maintain a heightened level of happiness and prevent adaptation.
3. Circumstantial factors
The third component of the HAP model focuses on circumstantial factors that can influence our happiness. These factors include life events, environmental conditions, and social relationships. While some circumstances may be beyond our control, the HAP model suggests that we can actively seek to shape our circumstances to prevent hedonic adaptation.
This all sounds very sensible. It is unsurprising that a core strategy outlined in the HAP model is the practice of gratitude.
Cultivating gratitude for the positive aspects of our life is perhaps the most powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation.
Lyubomirsky et al. (2005, p. 128) write: “Grateful thinking promotes adaptive coping by reducing the impact of the negative aspects of situations, promoting positive appraisals of stressful events, and preventing the decline in positive affect over time.”
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2 Examples of Hedonic Adaptation
Hedonic adaptation is observable in various life domains, including our relationships, work, and leisure.
Let’s consider examples that illustrate what hedonic adaptation might look like in real life.
The dream job: Paul, a recent college graduate, secures his dream job at a prestigious company. With a generous salary, challenging projects, and plenty of opportunities for growth, Paul is elated and filled with a sense of accomplishment and excitement.
However, as the months pass, the initial thrill and novelty fade. Paul becomes accustomed to the demands and routine of his job, and the excitement gradually wanes. He adapts to his work environment and experiences a return to his baseline level of happiness.
Despite initial increases in happiness when we get deeply desired jobs or promotions, adaptation diminishes these positive effects over time.
Diener et al. (2006) emphasize that our happiness reverts to our baseline level, regardless of changes in work circumstances.
This underscores the importance of finding intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction to combat the hedonic adaptation process.
The romantic relationship: Ida and Marcus are madly in love and embark on a whirlwind romance. Their relationship is filled with passion, excitement, and a deep connection.
As time passes, the intensity of their emotions begins to wane. The initial euphoria gives way to a more stable, less exhilarating phase. Ida and Marcus become accustomed to each other’s presence, and their happiness level settles into a comfortable equilibrium.
In the context of relationships, we tend to adapt to the positive feelings associated with new romantic partnerships. We do not stay in the excited, exhilarating honeymoon stage of love forever. Research by Diener et al. (2006) shows that after approximately two years, our happiness levels return to their original set point, irrespective of relationship status.
This adaptation highlights the need to actively nurture and invest in relationships to sustain long-term happiness.
Can the Happiness Set Point Be Changed?
To recap: The concept of a happiness set point refers to the stable baseline level of happiness that we return to over time.
While genetic and personality factors contribute to its formation, recent research suggests that intentional efforts can influence and alter this baseline.
The field of positive psychology offers promising interventions and practices to transcend happiness set points and foster long-term wellbeing.
Studies have consistently shown a remarkable degree of stability in happiness set points over time. Helliwell et al. (2020, p. 68) highlight this stability, emphasizing the strong persistence of individual differences in happiness levels: “Happiness is found to be quite stable across time, with individual differences in happiness having a strong persistence.”
Despite significant life events, then, it looks as though we revert to our preexisting level of happiness, although the exact level of stability may vary among individuals.
Genetic factors have a substantial influence on our happiness set point. Bartels and Boomsma (2009, p. 4) suggest that genetic factors account for 30% to 40% of the variation in subjective wellbeing: “Twin and family studies suggest that about 30–40% of the variation in subjective wellbeing can be accounted for by genetic factors.”
Personality traits, such as extraversion and neuroticism, too, have been linked to variations in happiness set points. Lucas et al. (2020, p. 127) have found that “individuals high in extraversion tend to have higher levels of wellbeing, whereas those high in neuroticism tend to have lower levels of wellbeing, reflecting their respective happiness setpoints.”
While happiness set points show relative stability, more recent research indicates that they are not entirely fixed and can be influenced by intentional efforts. As mentioned, Lyubomirsky et al. (2005) discuss interventions such as practicing gratitude, diversifying our activities, cultivating positive relationships, and engaging in meaningful activities, suggesting that they can elevate happiness set points.
The field of positive psychology has explored various interventions and practices that foster sustainable happiness, such as cultivating gratitude (Emmons & McCullough, 2003), engaging in acts of kindness (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005), and practicing mindfulness and meditation (Fredrickson et al., 2008).
Lyubomirsky et al. (2005, p. 123) conclude that “although our happiness levels may have a genetic component, they are more malleable than once thought and can be raised through strategic activities.”
By actively engaging in practices that promote wellbeing, we may be able to shift our happiness set points and experience lasting positive changes in our lives.
How to Become Happier
To escape the hedonic treadmill and cultivate greater happiness, we can adopt evidence-based strategies. Some effective practices include the following.
Cultivating a sense of gratitude has been linked to increased happiness and life satisfaction. Take time each day to reflect on things you are grateful for and express appreciation toward others.
Keeping a gratitude journal or engaging in gratitude exercises can help shift your focus toward the positive aspects of life (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
Foster meaningful relationships
Building and nurturing strong relationships with family, friends, and the community can have a profound impact on happiness.
Invest time and effort in developing deep connections, engaging in meaningful conversations, and providing support to others. Social connections and a sense of belonging are vital for our long-term wellbeing.
Engage in acts of kindness
Performing acts of kindness not only benefits others but also enhances our own happiness. Engage in random acts of kindness, volunteer for a cause you care about, or simply lend a helping hand to someone in need.
Acts of kindness promote positive emotions and create a sense of fulfillment (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005).
Practice mindfulness and self-care
Mindfulness meditation and self-care practices can help break the cycle of constant striving and dissatisfaction.
Set aside time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation. Engaging in mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing or meditation, can promote a sense of present-moment awareness and reduce stress (Keng et al., 2011).
Pursue personal growth and learning
Setting goals and pursuing activities that align with our values and interests can contribute to a sense of purpose and personal fulfillment.
Continuously challenge yourself, learn new skills, and seek opportunities for growth and development. Embrace a growth mindset that focuses on progress rather than perfection.
Limit materialistic pursuits
While material possessions can provide temporary pleasure, they often contribute minimally to our long-term happiness. Avoid the trap of constantly seeking external validation through materialistic pursuits.
Instead, prioritize experiences, meaningful connections, and personal growth over the accumulation of material wealth.
Practice savoring and mindful enjoyment
Learn to savor positive experiences and moments of joy in your daily life. Slow down, engage your senses, and fully appreciate the simple pleasures around you.
Practice mindful enjoyment by being fully present and immersed in the activities you enjoy, whether it’s savoring a delicious meal, enjoying nature, or engaging in a hobby.
Byron Katie, author and creator of “The Work,” explains why our thoughts can cause both happiness and suffering. Here is a clip of her interview in a symposium discussing happiness.
Happiness Resources From PositivePsychology.com
To dive deeper into some topics mentioned in this article, you might find the following texts interesting.
Anna Katharina Schaffner’s article outlines the differences between hedonic and eudaimonic wellbeing. Shifting our focus away from hedonic pursuits to more eudaimonic ones will also help us avoid the pitfalls of hedonic adaptation.
Seph Fontane Pennock’s article looks at how a lack of gratitude can drive an unhealthy desire for more (and more).
Heather Craig’s summary of the theory, research, and psychology of happiness is another excellent additional resource for further ideas on how to prevent hedonic adaptation.
Lastly, if you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others discover meaning, check out this collection of 17 validated meaning tools for practitioners. Use them to help others choose directions for their lives in alignment with what is truly important to them.
A Take-Home Message
The truth is out, and research confirms it: we can be happier over the long term!
While the metaphor of the hedonic treadmill and the concepts of hedonic adaptation and fixed happiness set points may initially appear discouraging, recent research has shown that it is possible to escape deterministic ways of thinking on these topics by focusing our attention on intentional actions that are within our control.
By understanding the mechanisms of hedonic adaptation and engaging in intentional strategies to prevent it, we can elevate our happiness levels, transcend happiness setpoints, and lead more fulfilling lives.
Following the suggestions in the HAP model, it is clear that gratitude practices as well as introducing diversity into our hedonic diet may be able to prevent hedonic adaptation from negatively impacting our wellbeing.
The hedonic treadmill is a psychological theory that suggests that humans have a tendency to return to a relatively stable level of happiness or subjective wellbeing, despite changes in their circumstances or external conditions.
What are examples of hedonic adaptation?
Examples of hedonic adaptation include:
Getting used to a new car or house
Receiving a promotion or raise
Being in a romantic relationship for an extended period of time
How does the hedonic treadmill work?
The hedonic treadmill suggests that humans have a “set point” for their level of happiness and that external circumstances such as wealth, status, or material possessions can only bring temporary increases in happiness. Over time, individuals adapt to these changes and return to their set point, requiring additional positive experiences or external changes to maintain higher levels of happiness.
Bartels, M., & Boomsma, D. I. (2009). Born to be happy? The etiology of subjective well-being. Behavior Genetics, 39(6), 605–615.
Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. T. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M. H. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation-level theory: A symposium (pp. 287–305). Academic Press.
Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(1), 1–31.
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.
Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.
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), 1045–1062.
Frederick, S., & Loewenstein, G. (1999). Hedonic adaptation. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwarz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 302–329). Russell Sage Foundation.
Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. D. (2020). World happiness report 2020. Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
Kahneman, D., Fredrickson, B. L., Schreiber, C. A., & Redelmeier, D. A. (1993). When more pain is preferred to less: Adding a better end. Psychological Science, 4(6), 401–405.
Keng, S. L., Smoski, M. J., & Robins, C. J. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1041–1056.
Klausen, S. H., Emiliussen, J., Christiansen, R., Hasandedic-Dapo, L. & Engelsen, S. (2022). The many faces of hedonic adaptation. PhilosophicalPsychology, 35(2), 253–278.
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About the author
Dr. Anna K. Schaffner is a coach, writer and Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent. Her latest non-fiction book explores the long history of the idea of self-improvement. It traces formulas for self-improvement in philosophical, religious, psychological and self-help texts from ancient China to the present day. She is also a qualified coach and has a deep interest in positive psychology and the art of self-improvement.