If you want to be happier in life, stop moving the goalposts.

That’s the gist of the hedonic treadmill theory. It’s great to be ambitious, but research suggests being chronically driven can have negative effects on our subjective well-being in the long run. You’re constantly pursuing the next thing, and then when you do accomplish something, the immediate happiness wears off quickly.

Key Takeaways

  • Happiness research often talks about a happiness set point: Your personal conditions for happiness. This is sometimes called a hedonic set point.
  • The higher your set point is, the higher your happiness baseline becomes, which can turn into a trap.
  • Pursuing meaningful activities can help you ensure happiness levels are sustainable and achievable.

Here’s a bit more about the history of hedonic adaptation, where it came from, and how to escape it in order to enjoy more overall happiness in life.

What Is Hedonic Adaptation?

The concept of the hedonic treadmill was first introduced by psychologists Phillip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell in 1971. They observed that individuals experience a temporary increase in happiness when they achieve something they desire, such as a promotion or a new purchase. However, this initial surge of happiness tends to fade quickly, and people often find themselves yearning for the next achievement or acquisition to fill the void. Hedonic adaptation refers to the idea that, after either positive events or negative events, humans will return to their well-being baseline rather quickly.

On one hand, this is good. If you have negative feelings or experience a setback, your negative emotions won’t last forever. But this also means that the high that comes from positive feelings is also temporary. If you only ever tie your personal growth to achievements, your happiness will fade.

How the Hedonic Treadmill Works

In today's consumer-driven society, it's easy to fall into the trap of continuously seeking out new experiences and material possessions to find happiness. This phenomenon is known as the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill refers to the theory that people habituate to new experiences and return to a relatively stable level of happiness, despite major positive or negative life events.

The hedonic treadmill suggests that, when we only tie our emotional baseline to performance or other external environmental factors, we run the risk of running ourselves ragged. Hustle culture leads to hedonic pleasure in the short term, but because the high ends quickly, it can stunt the feelings of accomplishment that come from major life events.

One of the primary reasons the hedonic treadmill occurs is due to the human tendency to adapt to new circumstances. This adaptation occurs both in positive and negative situations. For example, when you buy a new car, the novelty and excitement wear off over time, and it becomes just another part of your daily life. Similarly, after experiencing a negative event, such as a breakup, your emotional state eventually returns to its baseline level.

c/o Vanessa Garcia via Pexels

Resetting Your “Happiness Set Point”

To overcome the hedonic treadmill, it is essential to shift your focus from material possessions to experiences.

Research has consistently shown that experiences tend to provide longer-lasting happiness compared to material possessions. Instead of buying the latest gadget or designer handbag, consider investing in activities that bring joy and fulfillment, such as traveling, trying a new hobby, or spending quality time with loved ones.

Develop Gratitude and Mindfulness Practices

Practicing gratitude and mindfulness can also help break free from the hedonic treadmill. Take time each day to reflect on the things you are grateful for, both big and small. This simple practice can shift your mindset towards appreciating what you already have, rather than constantly seeking more.

Additionally, incorporating mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or breathing exercises, can help you stay present and fully enjoy the experiences and possessions you already have, without constantly craving for more.

Set Meaningful Goals and Priorities

Another strategy to overcome the hedonic treadmill is to set meaningful goals and priorities. It's important to differentiate between short-term pleasures and long-term fulfillment. Instead of chasing short-lived moments of pleasure, identify what truly matters to you in life and align your goals and actions accordingly.

This could involve pursuing a career that aligns with your passions, building meaningful relationships, or engaging in activities that contribute to a greater cause.

Build Social Connections and Give Back

Research has shown that strong social connections and acts of kindness can significantly increase happiness and well-being. Instead of using your resources solely for personal gain, consider using them to benefit others. Engage in volunteer work, join community organizations, or simply spend more quality time with loved ones.

Building strong social connections and giving back can provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment that goes beyond the fleeting happiness of material possessions.

Embrace Mindful Consumption

While it may not be possible to completely eliminate consumption from our lives, adopting a mindful approach to consumption can help break free from the hedonic treadmill. Before making a purchase, pause and ask yourself whether it aligns with your values and if it will genuinely contribute to your overall well-being. Avoid impulse buying and focus on acquiring possessions that truly bring value and joy to your life.

By being more intentional with your consumption habits, you can reduce the urge to constantly seek out new possessions.

c/o Ryutaro Tsukata via Pexels

Frequently Asked Questions

Do Positive Emotions Help Escape the Hedonic Treadmill?

Positive psychology can help you become more aware of the hedonic treadmill. But hedonic adaptation will occur in response to both positive and negative emotions, a concept known as hedonic relativism.

What Is the Hedonic Treadmill Theory?

The hedonic treadmill theory states that humans quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness after major positive or negative events. It's the tendency to adjust to new situations and revert to our happiness baseline.

How Can I Reset my Happiness Set Point?

Shifting focus to meaningful experiences instead of material goods, practicing gratitude and mindfulness, setting meaningful goals beyond short-term pleasures, building social connections, giving back, and mindful consumption can help reset your baseline happiness."

Escape the Hedonic Treadmill

The allure of the hedonic treadmill can be powerful, but it doesn't have to control your life. Remember that true happiness ultimately comes from within. ◆

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