Hedonic Adaptation Robs Happiness: How to Change That for the Better

Hedonic adaptation is known as ‘the hedonic treadmill,’ a concept studied by researchers who focus on happiness and well-being that refers to people’s general tendency to return to a set level of happiness in spite of life’s ups and downs. It is known as a treadmill because of the experience where people always end up where they started.

Examples of Hedonic Adaptation

Several ways this has been observed can help explain what this means and why it happens:

  • People who win the lottery return to their original level of happiness after the novelty of the win wears off. There is an influx of joy but after a year or so, they return to a certain baseline
  • People who are in accidents or end up struggling with traumatic events can see them as devastating at first but may end up returning to a certain level of happiness after they get used to the new normal
  • Research has found the first bite of food is experienced as more pleasurable when it is a new food than the third or tenth time. People become accustomed to pleasure quickly and then it takes more of the same to find the same level of jo

Controlling the Treadmill

Many people examine the hedonic treadmill phenomenon and have attempted to determine how much happiness is under our control. Some of it is genetics, the rest is circumstances. Lots of the time, we have some control over what happens, but less than half is up to us, really. Not having much control over it, but some, still leaves wiggle room for people to figure out how to get off the treadmill and find the happiness they deserve.

What is Impacted

Certain things can become impacted by hedonic adaptation (happiness dissipates quickly). Pleasures are delights that have sensory and emotional components. When they hit those sensibilities, they can lift a person’s mood and leave them feeling wonderful, but the effects are fleeting. When we get used to them, we may find it to be less pleasurable to keep on the roller coaster. Gratifications are activities with a strong sense of meaning and are more immune to effects of hedonic adaptation. The more a person engages in gratifications, the more people enjoy them, and they require more effort for bigger payoff. Pleasures are fleeting and their impact may seem less worth the effort. Volunteering for a good cause or helping a friend can carry benefits as well. These take energy and may not be fun but they are challenging and bring inner peace. Altruism does have benefits to givers and recipients. Meaningful acts should not be overlooked as they can transcend this idea that happiness fades with the experience. The opposite may be true in this case.

To minimize hedonic adaptation, it helps to try some of the following:

  • Do different things that bring pleasure like making a friend laugh, doing poetry, drinking coffee with a friend
  • Rotate pleasures so they seem new. Keep an eye on how much time you spend and how much you enjoy the activities
  • Make time for hobbies. Plan class once a week or go as often as you are able and do things that challenge you
  • Find time for others to build greater meaning into life
  • Savor experiences and learn to enjoy them for deeper meaning rather than about the bigger payoff
  • Keep an eye on happiness levels. Do what makes you happy and try something new. If you are naturally less happy, this extra attention can help you live more fully but don’t just do things for pleasure. Do them because they bring inner joy

This treadmill is part of life and how humans are created. It helps keep us grounded and we can still increase our happiness setpoint by working pleasures, gratifications, and meaningful activities into our lives by engaging in the right activities at the right time.

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