What would make you happy? A big lottery win? Finding the love of your life? Dining at the finest restaurants every day? Well, the hedonic treadmill theory stipulates that even if you managed to achieve all of the above, you’ll be no happier than you were before.
What Is the Hedonic Treadmill?
The hedonic treadmill is a psychological term for the speed in which we return to our basic happiness levels. Psychologists believe that we all have this basic set point in our lives.
In other words, no matter what happens to us, we always end up back at our original happiness levels. Of course, we all experience different stages in our lives where we might undergo great highs or suffer devastating lows. The hedonic treadmill is our tendency to always return to our own particular level of happiness.
So, for example, a pessimistic person may win millions in the lottery. They might feel incredibly overjoyed and full of optimism for the future. However, according to the hedonic treadmill, this feeling of euphoria will dissipate. The pessimist will soon return to their usual state of pessimism.
On the other hand, an optimist may suffer the most crippling losses and feel desperately sad for a period of time. However, this low feeling won’t last forever. That same optimistic will return to his or her basic set level.
So basically, if you are typically miserable, it doesn’t matter what happens to you in life, good or bad. You’ll most likely go back to your level of unhappiness. Likewise, someone who always looks on the bright side will naturally revert back to this state, whatever lows they may suffer.
Examples of Hedonistic Treadmill
Winning the lottery
You would imagine that a lottery win would always change a person’s life for the better. And it does, but not as you would think. A recent Swedish study revealed that although big lottery winners do feel an overall increase in life satisfaction, their overall levels of happiness were unchanged.
In fact, after an initial boost of happiness associated with the actual win, winners quickly returned to their original levels of happiness. This indicates that once you get used to a certain change it no longer has such a big effect on you. This is hedonic adaptation.
Buying the latest smartphone
We’ve all seen the massive queues outside stores in anticipation of the release of a new iPhone. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you are a teenager or older person; the excitement on getting your hands on the latest version is palpable. But how soon does this feeling wear off and you get used to the new features, the upgraded spec and the glory of it all? Pretty soon, according to the hedonic treadmill theory.
So what’s going on in our minds? Does this theory mean we can never be truly happy? Or does it mean that happiness is a fleeting moment, not designed to last?
Well, what it means is that circumstances do not account for our own personal levels of happiness. It means that all of us have this baseline level, and no matter what happens to us, we’ll eventually return to it.
Sure, we might experience an initial spike of happiness or dip of sadness, but once we get used to these fluctuations, we return to normal. So are we born with this set level, is it constant throughout our lives and can we change it?
The Five Factors of Hedonic Treadmill
There are five important factors to consider when it comes to the hedonic treadmill theory.
The average baseline set point is above neutral
Research shows that the set point we return to is typically above average. So if you imagine a pessimist at one end and an optimist at the other, our set happiness point is further towards optimism.
Set points vary between people
Even though this set point is nearer to optimism, we all have our own set points on the hedonic treadmill. These points are due to character traits, our experiences growing up and our personalities.
We can have several set points
Happiness is derived from many different factors and each one can be more important to the individual. Moreover, what one person considers to be an essential part of their happiness might not matter to another.
The things that make us happy can change
I remember when I was young and the most important thing for me was going out partying at the weekend with friends. Now I’m older, the thought of having to get the glad rags on and actually go out and talk to people fills me with dread. I’m much happier living in the countryside in a small village and walking my dogs.
We adapt differently to events
There is an assumption that we all react and adapt to changes in our circumstances the same way. But of course, this isn’t the case. As individuals with completely different experiences in life, we all adapt in our own unique ways. And this affects our happiness.
Can We Ever Get Off the Hedonic Treadmill? Pleasures and Gratifications
Studies show that particular experiences are more prone to hedonic adaptation. In other words, we get used to some things faster than others and the feeling of happiness tends to wear off more. These things are known as ‘pleasures’. These pleasures bring us bursts of happiness that leave us feeling joyful, excited, exhilarated.
Researcher Martin Seligman has studied the effects of these pleasures:
“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.”
Examples of pleasures
- A rollercoaster ride
- A bite of a delicious cake
- Smelling fresh flowers
- A sip of ice-cold beer on a hot summers’ day
- That first gulp of coffee in the morning
- Listening to your favourite group
- Watching a funny film
- Getting into bed with fresh sheets
On a personal level, I can relate to a hedonic treadmill. As I live on my own I tend to cook my same favourite meal over and over for a few days at least. I also buy the same treats for myself, like a particular brand of ice-cream.
But although I enjoy all of it at the start, by day 3, I’m bored. The ice-cream isn’t delicious as it was on day 1. I’m looking for something different. This is the hedonic adaptation kicking in.
Seligman describes these as fleeting pleasures that are brief with short-term effects.
Now, he reckons that in order to be truly happy we need to focus on what he calls ‘gratifications’. Gratifications are the activities where we have to contribute some effort, not just experience it.
Typically, these gratifications involve some small challenge that piques our interest or focus. Like painting a landscape, jogging, reading a new novel or cooking with new ingredients.
Often while we pursue these types of activities, we are lost in the flow of them. We become unaware of time, or people around us. We are totally focused on the task at hand. And the great thing about gratifications is the more we undertake them, the more pleasure we derive from them.
Examples of gratifications
- Writing poetry
- Playing a sport
These all look like hobbies and to some extent, they are. But the other thing they all have in common is that they all lift our moods with a tiny bit of effort on our part. Not only that, but they all bring a greater reward that is not transitory, like sniffing a flower, but can have permanent benefits.
How to Maintain Your Happiness Levels?
So does this mean we all have to give up what brings us pleasure like a good cup of coffee or fresh bedsheets? No, in fact, there are ways you can minimise your hedonic adaptation and get off the treadmill.
- Treat yourself to different pleasures every day, don’t just stick with the same one.
- Swap your pleasures to stop getting used to a certain one.
- Do something you love that takes a bit of effort.
- Be grateful for what you do have and don’t compare yourself with others.
Winning the lottery, getting that big house or a new car won’t affect our levels of happiness. They might increase our satisfaction with life, but at the end of the day, the important things are our loved ones and our health. Let’s try and remember that.
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