Hedonic Treadmill (A Complete Guide)

Hedonism is a popular concept and most of us know about it. Hedonic treadmill is a relatively new concept and people would like to know more about this treadmill.

Let me tell you that this is not another new company who is introducing its treadmills. Hedonic treadmill is a concept in psychology which was present in 1971.

Hedonic treadmill refers to a person’s tendency to go back to the first set point of happiness no matter how happy he gets.

This article will throw light on the concept of hedonic treadmill, its history and how it affects your happiness.

Let’s start with the definition of hedonic treadmill. 

What is a hedonic treadmill?

Hedonic treadmill is a concept which is defined by different psychologists in different words while sticking to the same notion.

Here are a few of the most famous definitions of hedonic treadmill. 

  • APA has defined hedonic treadmill as “a metaphor for a hypothesis proposing that people’s happiness tends to return to a preexisting baseline level after positive or negative life events have occurred”.  
  • Another definition states that “A hedonic treadmill is the tendency of a person to stay at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in luck or the accomplishment of major goals”.
  • Hedonic treadmill is defined in following words in another book “The hedonic treadmill is a metaphor for the concept that a person’s level of happiness tends to return to where it started (which is called a “set point”) despite of good destiny or negative life events the person experiences”. The process of fading of negative and positive effects on happiness is called hedonic adaptation. 
  • Another easily understandable definition states that “The hedonic treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation) is a theory that states that people frequently return to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them”.

In simpler terms, hedonic treadmill models tell us that the more a person makes money the more his desire and expectation rises.

Therefore, the increase in income does not provide permanent gain in happiness consequently.

It also sometimes refers to hedonic adaptation and hedonistic treadmill. 

History of Hedonic Treadmill

The concept of hedonic treadmill is there since the concept of happiness. It was known as hedonic adaptation in the 1970s and people had a little information about the concept.

In 1971, two psychologists named Campbell and Brickman wrote about this concept in their essay ‘Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society’.

After 20 years of this paper being published there came a psychologist named Michael Eysenck.

Eysenck compared the concept of hedonic adaptation to hedonic treadmill because it is a more popular term and easier to understand for most of the people.

That’s when the concept of hedonic treadmill was started and it is still being used till now. 

Understanding Hedonic Treadmill

It can be a little alien concept for some people because it has recently been introduced and most of the people are not familiar with the concept.

However, let’s make it easier for you to understand this alien idea of hedonic treadmill to you.

Remember when you were thinking about starting a new career and thinking how it would be the most important thing for you.

You must remember when you were thinking about buying a new house and how happy you would be about it.

If you have a hard time about thinking about the above stuff you definitely remember about sharing your life with your love interest and the burst of joy it gives to you.  

Once you have achieved one of these things or in some cases achieved everything, you will realize that it wasn’t that much of a joy or you are not as happier as you thought.

Hedonic treadmill states that most of the people tend to their baseline level of happiness because they adjust their expectations to the new status.

People tend to expect more after getting what they wanted to maintain the same level of happiness (hence the name hedonic treadmill).

As Lord Petyr Baelish in Game of thrones once said “It doesn’t matter what we want, once we get it we want something else”.

Same concept of a treadmill (that is returning to the set point) goes for negative events as well.

Just like positive effects, negative events do not affect a person’s happiness for too long as well.

People cannot stay depressed about a negative thing like losing a home or a job for a longer period of time because they will return to their baseline point of happiness eventually.

Hedonic treadmill is known to be a double edge sword because it protects a person from the effects of harmful environments and also restricts the potential gains in happiness for a longer period of time.

One of the most important purposes served by a hedonic treadmill is the fact which some of us know that wealthy people are no happier than poor people and that sometimes the poor people are also quite happy.

It can be said that this model also supports the famous saying that money doesn’t buy happiness and that pursuit of happiness is not the same as pursuit of money.

Moreover, it also supports that good and bad fortunes only affect a person’s happiness temporarily and people tend to go back to their initial level of happiness eventually. 

What is a hedonic set point or happiness set point?

In simplest terms, a hedonic set point or happiness set point is the general baseline level of happiness which an individual experiences in his lifetime, despite any temporary change that came after occurrence of any negative or positive events happening in his life.

The circumstances do not account for happiness most of the time because every person has its own happiness set point.

A hedonic set point for happiness is his predisposition for happiness which is mostly determined by genetics.

This predisposition is responsible for almost 50% of individual differences in happiness of different people.

If you have a low set point and tend to be more on the depressed side, you need not to worry because you are dealing with a stacked deck to some extent.

However, you can definitely improve yourself and your happiness without being worried about what genetics says.

Effects of the Hedonic Treadmill

There was a study which studied the relative happiness of lottery winners and accident victims. It was published in 1978 and tried to find out how people adapted to happiness.

The finding suggested that lottery winners showed the same level of happiness before and after winning the lottery.

It represents that there is no consistent correlation in monetary gains and a person’s increased happiness. In this case, the baseline level of happiness will be the over time for the lottery winners.

Even though the lottery winners showed that they felt good about winning the lottery they were less happy in their day to day and general activities than the control group.

Moreover, the other group of accident victims reported to have their happiness increased over time despite the decrease in happiness initially.

According to this theory, wealth and financial gains are important but one should not consider wealth as a source of increasing their overall happiness.

Remember, money doesn’t buy happiness; you should stick to this saying. 

Can a treadmill be escaped?

Some people might be worried about not so good effects of the treadmill and wanted to escape the treadmill which is not that big a deal.

According to a study you can outpace the effects of hedonic treadmill by using loving-kindness meditation.

Most of the research of happiness is focused around mindfulness which is a form of meditation. However, this study published in 2008 showed importance to another form of meditation which is loving-kindness meditation.

This type of meditation gives rise to the feelings of warmth and care for your own and other people. According to research, this type of meditation trains your mind to change passing emotional phases.

It also reshapes your personality characteristics by help you learn about your mind’s nature.

If you practice this kind of meditation, you will realize that it has also told you about the wrong presumption about the causes of happiness and well-being.

Meditation can be a great way of increasing compassion and empathy in a person.

It also has the ability to change your outlooks of yourself and others around you which ultimately leads to happiness and well-being. 

How does optimism affect hedonic treadmill?

Inheritance plays an important role in the effects of hedonic treadmill. Some people have inherently optimistic nature and they tend to be happier than others despite events happening in their lives.

Effect of hedonic treadmill is different for different people because of individual differences.

Different people have their own definition and interpretations of different events, they tend to have different thinking.

Moreover, everyone has their own coping mechanism and self defenses like some people cope by using their sense of humor and others does it by ruminating about the past.

These small things can have an amazingly bigger impact on a person’s outlook and his happiness. Optimistic and happier people tend to look at life events in a more positive way.

The differences in cognitive processes can reinforce and promote people’s disposition of hedonic treadmill. Optimistic individuals tend to evaluate events in constructive and productive ways.

On the other hand, unhappy and pessimistic people are likely to dwell on the negative aspects and tend to find everything that can go wrong in the event.

Therefore, you can train your mind to be happier. 

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FAQ about Hedonic treadmill

Some of the most frequently asked questions about hedonic treadmill are given below.

Is the set point in hedonic treadmill neutral?

No, the set point in a hedonic treadmill is not neutral and some studies found out that the set point is rather positive than a neutral one. 

Can happiness change?

As a matter of fact, it can change.

A longitudinal studied conducted in Germany found out that 24% individuals reported an increase in happiness.

Are set points individualized?

Yes, set points are individualized to every single person and it varies with a person’s personality traits.

Are there individual differences in hedonic adaptation?

Even though the theory assumes that adaptation happens the same for everyone, the research suggest otherwise.

According to the research, there are definitely individual differences in hedonic adaptation.






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