The Hedonic Treadmill – Obstacle to Happiness


Did you ever wonder why some people do not seem to be happy at all, even though they have everything one could dream of? There’s an interesting theory that offers a possible explanation why rich people are no happier than those that are less fortunate. This theory is known as the “hedonic treadmill.” Definition of the hedonic treadmill: The hedonic treadmill describes the tendency of people to return to their usual level of happiness after major events in their lives (both positive and negative). This tendency is also known as hedonic adaptation. The driving force behind this theory is the idea that a permanent gain in happiness cannot be accomplished through the multiplication of money, as desires and expectations rise as well, leading to no improvement. In fact, the theory clearly supports the idea that money cannot buy happiness.

The theory of the hedonic treadmill was fine-tuned by the British psychologist Michael Eysenck, who likened the attempt of gaining happiness to a person running on a treadmill. The person is running for the sole purpose of staying in the same place. There is no rest for a person motivated by endless desires.

The theory of hedonic adaptation also states that your happiness is—in the long run—not affected by major events with a big impact on your life. You may be heavily affected by good and bad fortunes, but in the end, you will always return to your stable level of happiness.

How a hedonic adaptation works

That theory of the hedonic treadmill does not deny that a person will feel incredibly happy after something extraordinarily positive happened. The same holds true for negative events. In fact, the theory acknowledges that spikes in happiness or sadness are caused by major events in a person’s life. However, the theory also states that the initial happiness/sadness starts to dissipate after some time has passed. The person finds itself right at the starting point, in this case, the person’s usual level of happiness.

Major research on the subject

There is a notable study that contributed largely to the theory of the hedonic treadmill. Entitled “Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative?” the study compared the levels of happiness of accident victims with that of lottery winners.


Interestingly, the researchers found that the happiness levels of both groups were, in the long run, at approximately similar levels. This means that there wasn’t one group that was happier than the other. Even though the lottery winners were initially confronted with significant spikes in happiness, they quickly returned back to their regular level of happiness. The same held true with the quick tons of accidents, only that this group was confronted with spikes of sadness.

Ways to overcome the hedonic treadmill

Many people notice that the happiness they pursue is more often than not out of reach. Despite running as fast as they can on the treadmill they still stay on the same level of happiness. That is until we realize that we constantly desire more, instead of learning to appreciate what we already have. In order to avoid the hedonic treadmill is important to realize that our desires never cease and that they never will be satisfied, no matter what we do.

Here’s how you can avoid hedonic adaptation:

1. Know where you want to be

Most people know that they want to earn a lot of money so that they can buy a huge mansion and have several luxury cars. But, as lottery winners can testify, a big house and all those other fancy things can only satisfy you to a certain extent. Instead of knowing what you want to process it is more productive to know exactly where you want to be. Have a goal or a vision for your life. Aim to be the person that goes to bed being satisfied with knowing that they are working on something really important and wonderful, instead of being the person that just goes to bed with the knowledge of possessing a lot of money.

2. Maintain a proper balance in life

We all tend to forget that happiness emerges out of balance. As a consequence, we sacrifice our valuable time we could spend with our family in order to acquire material possessions in the hope of gaining what happiness by doing so.

We also tend to forget that too much of a thing can quickly diminish its positive aspects. For this reason, try to establish a harmonious balance in your life. Make sure to invest time in your hobbies, friends, and family just as much you invest in your professional endeavors.

Realize that materialism can only provide you with short-term happiness. If you’re looking for something sustainable, seek for the true pleasures that can be found in non-material aspects of life.

3. Start meditating

Various scientific studies have highlighted the beneficial impact meditation can have on your level of happiness. One explanation for this is that vacation helps you to reduce negative feelings, such as depression and anxiety.

4. Make use of the Pareto Principle (80/20 rule)

We create 80% of our results with only 20% of our efforts. Is it possible that this concept can also be applied to happiness? Is it possible that only 20% of our activities and possessions are contributing to 80% of our happiness? It most certainly is!

Try to apply the Pareto Principle to your own life. Find out what it is that contributes a major part to your happiness. Once you have realized the major factors that make you happy you are able to aggressively sort out anything else that does not make a contribution.

5. Help others improve their lives

Knowing that you have helped another person live a better life is a profound experience. Scientists of the University of British Columbia and the Harvard Business School found that helping others can have a significantly positive impact on your own happiness. The researchers found that spending money on others predicted greater levels of happiness.

Revision of the hedonic treadmill

In recent years the theory of hedonic adaptation was challenged by scientists, who suggested the following revisions to the concept of the hedonic treadmill:

Firstly, the researchers point out that a person’s set points are not hedonically neutral. Secondly, the scientists argue that every person has different set points, influenced by their attitudes and temperaments. Thirdly, it is argued that an individual can have multiple set points of happiness. Another important aspect that the scientists raise is that set points do not necessarily have to be static. Instead, the happiness set points of a person could be subject to changes under specific conditions. The last argument that was raised by the researchers is the idea that people adapt their set point accordingly to external events.

In conclusion

The theory of hedonic adaptation states that a person will always return to their stable level of happiness, no matter what happens to them. On the positive side this means that despite having a negative fortune, a person is able to deal with the setback accordingly, make peace with the situation and regain the previous level of happiness. Critics of the theory point out that the happiness set points should not be considered stated, but dynamic instead. They also highlight that people are able to change their own set points in response to external events.

Photo credit: Military health


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Steve is the founder of Planet of Success, the #1 choice when it comes to motivation, self-growth and empowerment. This world does not need followers. What it needs is people who stand in their own sovereignty. Join us in the quest to live life to the fullest!

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