Can you remember the last time you were dreaming of buying a new car, getting 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 if you attained those things?
If you finally did attain one of those things, you may have found that the “happiness boost” didn’t last that long or wasn’t as intense as you’d imagined. Most of us have gone through this cycle.
The hedonic treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation) is a theory positing that people repeatedly return to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau beautifully explained hedonic adaptation in his 1754 Discourse on Inequality 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.”
How do we pursue happiness without grinding our bones into unsatisfied dust? There are many ways.
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A Little History
Two psychologists, Brickman and Campbell, first wrote about this concept in 1971 with their essay, “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.” In the 1970s, the concept was known as hedonic adaptation. It was 20 years when Michael Eysenck compared hedonic adaptation to a treadmill, a more modern and understandable example.
Happiness Set Point
Studies have shown that our circumstances don’t account for most of our happiness. Each person has a happiness set point, which refers to one’s genetically determined predisposition for happiness. This set point for happiness is responsible for about 50% of the differences in happiness from person to person.
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. You are, to an extent, dealing with a stacked deck;
- Fifty percent, as high as it is, is not 100%, so there’s plenty of leeway for improvement. Your actions, thoughts, and attitudes account for about 40% of your happiness, which is quite significant. (The final 10% is determined by external circumstances.)
The theory of the hedonic treadmill states that regardless of what happens to people, their levels of happiness will eventually return to their baselines. Take this theory with a classic example: say you get married, move into a new house, get a promotion, lose a job, suffer an accident, etc., over time, you’re likely to return to your set point of happiness.
There is an initial spike in happiness or sadness, but as time goes on, the feeling of happiness or sadness caused by an event starts to dissipate, and habituation kicks in.
After some time passes, you’ll be back at the level of happiness at which you were before.
A possible misattribution of this theory could be the relationship between good things happening in a period of time and positive emotions experienced during that same period.
If someone is fortunate enough to experience an abundance of positive events spaced out over a relatively short period of time, the constant influx of happiness may lead a person to believe that his or her general happiness has increased.
But that’s not what the research suggests.
Along with Brickman and Campbell’s original research (1971), a notable piece of research on the hedonic treadmill studied two sets of people: One was a group of people who won large lottery prizes, and the other was a group of accident victims who were now paralyzed (including quadriplegic and paraplegic people).
The research revealed that, in the long term, neither group appeared to be happier than the other. (Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman, 1978). Of course, the lottery winners and paralysis victims experienced initial reactions of happiness and sadness, respectively.
The effects didn’t turn out to be long-lasting, and people in both groups shortly reverted to their previous levels of happiness. In the original theory of the hedonic treadmill, Brickman and Campbell proposed that people immediately react to good and bad events but in a short time return to neutrality (1971).
However, if the theory put forth by Brickman and Campbell is correct, any effort to increase happiness is pointless — meaning that if our happiness set point is on the low end of the spectrum, we’re doomed to unhappiness.
The good news is that further research, led by Ed Diener, has refined the initial findings and brought greater understanding into the subtleties of the hedonic cycle.
Here are five points, supported by more recent research, to take into consideration:
1) The Set Point Is Not Neutral
After reviewing the data from earlier studies on the hedonic treadmill, Diener, Lucas, and Scollon (2006) found that approximately three-quarters of the samples studied reported affect balance scores (positive and negative moods and emotions) above neutral.
Even in diverse populations, including the Amish and the African Maasai, the well-being levels were above neutral.
So even if people adapt and return to a previous point, it’s a positive rather than a neutral one.
2) The Set Point Is Individualized
Recent research shows that even if everyone has a set point, it varies significantly from person to person. Personality traits play a role in someone’s happiness set point, and well-being is moderately heritable. So, different personality traits may predispose individuals to different levels of well-being.
3) We Have Multiple Set Points
The notion of a set point suggests that each person has a single, static baseline of happiness. But more recent work by Diener, Suh, Lucas, and Smith (1999) complicates this theory by arguing that happiness is composed of different factors that contribute to well-being, and these factors sometimes move in different directions.
For example, one could have both positive and negative emotions in decline but life satisfaction on the rise. The basic idea is that different forms of well-being can move in different directions at the same time.
4) Happiness Can Change
One of the conclusions often drawn from the first study is that no matter what we do, we can’t effect lasting change on our levels of well-being and life satisfaction. Examining well-being levels of nations might help clarify this, as research on this specific topic is scarce.
If there are marked differences in well-being across nations and these differences can be predicted from objective characteristics of those nations, that could mean that circumstances can have a long-term impact on well-being.
For example, one study cited that a nation’s “higher-than-average wealth” and “support for human rights” were strong predictors of the well-being of its residents. Researchers at The Economist also reported that 85% of the variance in well-being between nations can be explained by nine factors that included: 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 of Germans (2005).
The researchers found that even though there was significant stability in the happiness assessments, 24% of participants still experienced a significant change to their happiness level, and 9% of participants changed by two standard deviations or more. 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.” – Martin Seligman
5) Individual Differences in Adaptation
Another assumption stemming from the original hedonic treadmill theory is that adaptation happens the same way for everyone. But research shows that there are individual differences in the rate and extent of adaptation.
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: less-satisfied individuals were more likely to benefit from marriage in the long term.
Can We Escape the Treadmill?
A study by Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues Cohn, Coffey, Pek, and Finkel showed that the stream of positive emotions induced through loving-kindness meditation can outpace the effects of the hedonic treadmill (2008).
Most research on meditation focuses on mindfulness meditation. However, because of the specific interest in eliciting positive emotions, Fredrickson et al. focused on loving-kindness meditation, a form of meditation that evokes feelings of warmth and care for oneself and others.
Researchers suggest that this kind of mind-training practice not only changes passing emotional states but also reshapes enduring personality traits by helping us learn about the nature of our own minds. Practicing loving-kindness meditation also helps dismantle false assumptions about what leads to happiness and well-being.
Over time, meditation may be the gateway to creating insights that change our outlooks on ourselves and others, thereby increasing empathy and compassion.
Differences in Happiness
Despite the hedonic treadmill, some people have an inherently optimistic nature. They seem much happier than others, no matter what is happening in their lives.
An individual’s definition of an event (threat or challenge), his or her interpretations, and the ways in which he or she continues to think about the event (e.g., with a sense of tragedy, a sense of humor, ruminating about the past) can have a big impact on his or her outlook.
In Sonja Lyubomirsky’s research on this subject, she found that happy individuals perceive, interpret, and subsequently think about life events and life circumstances in more positive ways than negative ones (1998). These differences in cognitive processes may, in turn, reinforce and promote people’s affective dispositions.
Happy individuals can evaluate events (especially negative ones) in positive and productive ways. Unhappy individuals tend to dwell on the negative aspects of events, find things that are “wrong” about positive events, or ruminate on how things were better before.
How to Become Happier
If people become accustomed to (or take for granted) anything positive that happens to them, then how can they ever become happier? As stated before, about 40% of our happiness is dependent on our actions, thoughts, and attitudes.
That means that we have the ability to improve.
Tal Ben-Shahar is an American and Israeli writer in the field of positive psychology and leadership. He suggests the following tips for amplifying our level of happiness (2006):
- Give yourself permission to be human: Accept your emotions, including fear, sadness, and anxiety. Rejecting them leads to frustration
- Simplify your life. Focus on one thing at a time and reduce multitasking.
- Find meaning and pleasure. Engage in goals you want to achieve instead of what you feel obligated to do. Spend two hours per week on hobbies. Spend time with our loved ones.
- Focus on the positive and be grateful. Each day, write down five things for which you’re grateful.
- Increase the effort you put into your relationships. Go on a date with your significant other or spend more time talking to your children.
- Be mindful of the mind-body connection through exercise and the practice of mindfulness meditation, yoga, and breathing techniques. Research has shown that exercising leads to decreased levels of depression (Lyubomirsky & Tucker, 1998).
There are other tools we can use to shift our thoughts. By being mindful of what we think while reacting to situations, we can begin to focus on what we need to change in order to view the entire situation differently.
Byron Katie, author of the “The Work,” sums this up perfectly, explaining why our thoughts can cause both happiness and suffering. Here is a clip of her interview in a symposium discussing happiness.
To increase happiness, we can reflect on what we really want to do, choose the people and activities we really enjoy, learn by revisiting our negative thoughts, and focus on the present moment.
The hedonic treadmill theory states that our circumstances, including extremes like winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic, alter our happiness level temporarily, and we quickly adjust back to a fixed emotional set point.
Is this an important concept to grasp when it comes to understanding happiness? Absolutely.
Recent research challenges the assumption that adaptation is inevitable and shows that adaptation processes may vary depending on the events and individuals in question. Reviewing this research reveals that changes in our baseline levels of happiness are possible, that our baselines are often positive rather than neutral, and that we have multiple set points that might move in opposite directions.
These newer studies provide proof that interventions to increase happiness can be effective, and that changes can be targeted not only at an individual level but also on an organizational and social level.
What are your experiences with the hedonic treadmill? Do you think that people can change their set point of happiness?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
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