What is hedonistic adaptation (hedonic treadmill)?

Hedonistic adaptation, which is also known as the hedonic treadmill is the process of feeling elation and elevated happiness due to acquiring something new or achieving something.

You are all familiar with all these moments in life. The most common which I’m sure you will relate to is the purchase of a new car. You feel on top of the world right?

I recently experienced this when I purchased my first ever “luxury” car. For years I had been planning to spoil myself when I turned forty, so alas I bought by myself a Jaguar.

hedonistic adaptation

Those first few weeks provided that new car feeling. That happiness buzz you feel due to the acquisition of a new vehicle. Now month’s later I no longer have that feeling, the happiness boost.

My car has literally just become another car. Clearly even though it’s not. So this hedonistic adaptation is purely this feeling of elation and then coming down from it to normal levels of happiness.

Unfortunately for some this wicked rotation of seeking out this elevation in happiness can turn into a cyclical nightmare of chasing happiness.

Kind of sounds like a drug hey?

In this post I will talk a little more about where the whole concept originated from, some examples of the hedonic treadmill and some steps you can take to get off it.

hedonistic adaptation

Where did the concept of hedonistic adaptation come from?

The first notion of this was explained by Jean-Jacques Rousseau with a theory which spoke about humans being on a hedonic treadmill, where they rise in happiness due to external influences. But people repeatedly return to a baseline level of happiness.

No matter what happens we all tend to return to the same baseline of happiness. Jean-Jacques eloquently explains this human phenomenon in his 1752 book Discourse on Inequality. He explains this hedonic adaptation as follows:

“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.”

This was then taken further by the psychologists, Brickman and Campbell who first wrote about the hedonistic adaptation in their essay from 1971 called “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.”1

Hedonic adaptation was then revised even further 20 years later by Michael Eysenck who then compared this adaptation to a treadmill. This then became the more modern understanding of the concept.

This is when the hedonic treadmill was born.

What are some examples of hedonistic adaptation?

You probably have a fairly good understanding of what hedonistic adaptation is from the above. Let’s look at some example to make it absolutely clear.

  1. A fine example is of people who with the lottery. As someone feel an amazing level of elation as they have won the jackpot. These levels tend to go back to the normal levels of happiness that they were one at. In fact there has been studies that show that people become unhappy after winning the lottery. This has a lot to do with the change in their life’s dynamics post winning a large money. In this case the hedonic treadmill works that there is the obvious initial influx of happiness. Then after about a year everything returns to a regular state of happiness.
  2. Research has showed this hedonic adaptation happen during the eating process. When you bite into something that tastes amazing you will get a greater sense of pleasure than you wold say ten bites in. We as humans become accustomed to that feeling and we no longer experience the same sensation.
  3. Unfortunately the same rings true when you are at work and you receive that amazing salary increase you well and truly deserve. You guessed it while the initial buzz is amazing we as individuals will then step back to a normal level as we become used to that new salary.
  4. You have been planning a trip to Europe for a while and you have finally saved up enough money to book your tickets to your dream holiday. You go on your holiday and return after having a killer time. You then get that same feeling, so you repeat the process of getting that elation and going on holiday. It’s time
  5. The want to add a furry friend has been with you for a while and you finally decide to take the step to buy your own puppy. Yes you get that initial sensation from having this new adorable puppy. You then get used to this puppy and the sensation reduces to normalcy and the puppy just becomes a normal part of your life.
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Chances are you are reading through these and realising that life in general unfortunately flows through this hedonistic treadmill. We search for a greater sense of happiness through things so we get them.

Then we no longer have the feeling so we search for something else to get us to that place again. It really is not a healthy place to be if we are constantly chasing things to bring us high’s of happiness.

So what is it we can do to make sure we are not running on this treadmill?

A sense check to understand if you are under the spell of hedonostic adaptation.

This horrible curse of searching for happiness spurts happens to the best of us. If you are wondering whether or not you have become a slave to the hedonistic treadmill well I have some ways of analyzing your current situation. So let’s look at some signs that you may be on the addiction scale of hedonistic adaptation.

1. You are always thinking about that thing that if you get it will make you happy.

Do you ever go through cycle where you find that you are constantly researching and planning and hoping to get a specific experience, material object or person. Often when you are unhappy or bored you find that your thoughts tend to move to this thing to the point of excessive.

2. Do you find it hard to be just happy without looking for it.

This one speaks for itself really. Are you struggling with happiness and find yourself looking for something that will make you happy. Finding happiness does not come from objects or experiences but it comes from within you. This in itself is what is driving you to unhappiness.

3. Of no fault of yours you are taking things and people in your life for granted. You are being ungrateful.

The sad part about seeking thin gs that will make us happy we unintenionally forget about the things that we already have in our life. We can become ungrateful for the beauty that already exists in our life, we show no appreciation for what we have.

4. Do you always feel bored?

While its definitely natural to feel bored, there is a major difference between having a moment of boredom and always feeling bored. This feeling will give you that need to seek out more. You need to fill that hole inside of you and you get on that hedonic treadmill searching for things that will give you that false sense of happiness. The search for the thrill and rise of happiness is almost like an addiction to the feeling.

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5. You find it hard to be present in the moment and idealise the future.

This hedonistic treadmill is fueled by the idealized future. The reason we start this process of seeking happiness rather than being grateful for we have right now is because we lack a sense of good enough. When we are in this state we idealize the future to being a better thing rather than being grateful for what we have. The future is what keeps us going rather than the now.

Is there a way we can place more control of the hedonic treadmill?

So you have made it this far and you’re looking for some advice on how to get the heck off this constantly loop of seeking happiness. Studies show that it all comes down to variety and appreciation, they help individuals feel a longer lasting sense of happiness.2 It is no surprise that feeling a real appreciation for what you currently have will give you a greater sense of “real” happiness.

Below are some suggestion I have to help you get off this hampster wheel of chasing happiness and help build a long term feeling of happiness:

Enjoy the small things and moment. Stop with the preoccupation of the next best thing. Start appreciating all that is around us. Sometimes we forget how awesome our lives are and get carried away in searching for a false sense of happiness. Stop it. Take stock and realize how good your life is. The small things like waking up next to a loving partner, your dog being so exited to see you when you get home, COFFEE. Having a sense of gratitude is one of the most powerful feelings and WILL lead to a greater sense of happiness if practiced regularly.

Build your awareness of hedonistic adaptation. This is a thing of self awareness. When you notice yourself on the chase, realise that you are doing it. Recognition of it will help you identify when you are starting down this part of behaviour and the more you do this, the easier it will be stamp out of your life. This awareness will stop the addiction, especially if you get really in tune with your throughts and behaviours in the moment. Being present in the moment will help you dramatically here.

What has brought you happiness in the past? Use this reflection. Take a moment to look over your past and see the things that you have been engulfed in. If it makes it easier, write a list down. These can be things like you were obsessed with getting a new house, a new pair of shoes, a new car, moving to a new neighbourhood. These were all things that you were most likely chasing to drive happiness. When you got these things how long did that feeling of happiness last. You will start to realise all the things you do to chase happiness rather than being grateful for what you have.

What exactly are you trying to get away from? This hedonistic treadmill is basically all about going toward acquiring or getting something. The weirdest part about this is that sometimes it can be the fact that you are also trying to get away from something. Take stock and if this is the case you will need to face up to whatever it is that you trying to get away from from. Typical things include problems with your partner, sell image and confidence issues, the search for meaning, boredom and lastly the shit that just stresses you out. If you discover what it is you are trying to get away from find out a way of freeing yourself from the problem. This will help experience long term happiness.

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Your happiness is up to you only. Your happiness is your choice. It really is that simple. Happiness comes from within you. Nothing externally out of you can make you ultimately happy and in fact to love and to be happy you need to be happy and have a strong love for yourself. Once you are happy within you and you find that internal happiness, there are NO external factors that can take that happiness from you. Materialistic items and people are transient in ones life. The happiness within you is the essence of who you are.

Try meditation and mindfulness. The chase for satisfaction is the chase for that burst of feel good. This the backbone of the hedonic treadmill so practicing meditation as a regular habits will help you get off this treadmill. This will help you feel like you are in the moment and be thankful for what you have. To be centered and become one with yourself will help get you to your place of happiness.

Do not let your desires be the thing that dictates your life. As many wise people have said for thousands of years, the cause of all suffering is the attachment to the things you desire in life. The greater we believe that an external thing such as a material object will make us feel happier, the greater the chance of getting on this loop of hedonism. Free yourself from these desires and you will be free from suffering. I’m not saying don’t get things you need, but be aware of your desires. There is a reason why the whole minimalist movement has become so strong you know.

What to do from here?

Clearly you now understand what hedonistic adaptation is and you can now analyze your life to understand whether or not it is affecting you and your life. Are you really happy or are you just chasing that next happy high.

The power of your mindset really comes into play here. We are not all perfect and have systems and practices in our lifes that help us get to a centred place of happiness. But the greater we become aware of our life long conditions and the beliefs we have create around happiness, this will help us move forward to a better place.

Rather than seeking happiness, we just be happy. We practice daily gratitude for what we have and be thankful for these amazing things. No matter how small they are.

Sometimes it can be amazingly bizarre how ungrateful and entitled many people can be. It’s somewhat sad to be honest with you. Do not be part of that. You can be happy without chasing it.

I really do hope that this has helped you. I personally have been on this wheel my entire life and finding out about this has been a life changing thing for me. Having practiced daily gratitude it has helped me understand how lucky I am.

I also actively choose to be happy and see the positive things in life. Good luck!

Let me know what you think in the comments below, would love to hear about your treadmill realization and what what you will do to move forward.

  1. Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.
  2. Research by Sheldon and Lyubomirsky on happiness

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