The Theory of Hedonic Adaptation

The pursuit of happiness is one that we are all on. Some of us are looking for it harder than others, some may have figured out the secret ingredients, while others are substituting anything they can to even get a whiff. What I’ve learned in reading psychology related material about happiness is that it is a concept in the same way of unicorns, trolls under the bridge, or any other type of myth you have heard growing up. There is no “state of happiness.” We won’t one day ascend some long staircase to arrive at a state of being perfectly content and blissful. There will be rainy days, parking tickets, fender benders, lay off’s and countless other things we can’t be prepared for, but know that we will certainly experience.

So I know what you’re thinking, you’re saying “if I had enough money I’d surely be happy!” Well that’s where the concept of the hedonic treadmill comes into play. This is a new concept to me, but one that has changed my outlook on things as I always “felt” it but was never able to place a name to the phenomenon of it. My entire life I’ve always said “I’ll be happy when I can get _____” or “if I only had _____ everything would be so great!” The problem is that in our lives we will obtain many of the things that we thought would make us happy (i.e. career, wealth, love, family, etc…). Yet, the feeling of “I’ll be happy when I…” doesn’t seem to go away.

The hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation theory is a pincipal that identifies a level of innate happiness which exists in every person. This is our baseline happiness and the way we generally feel when going through the day. It is more clearly defined as “the tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals.” We have all have an individual baseline level of happiness and then there are feeling of high’s and low’s along the way like spikes you would see on an EKG chart. A birth of a child, new job, getting married are all high’s that can bring us up and that feeling can last for days, weeks, or even a few months. The same with the low’s, as a death in the family, loss of a job, breakup or any other negative incident can have us down in the dumps for a time, but eventually we come back to our baseline level of happiness. Common phrase for this is that “time heals all wounds.”

This process is walking on the hedonic treadmill. We are generally at a set point of happiness which is when we’re going through the day, watching tv, talking to friends, etc… and then we have our highs and lows throughout our life (brought on either internally or externally) that can shake things up for a bit before the dust eventually settles and we are back at the baseline. Now apply this to the concept to your pursuit of happiness and you will clearly see why this is a bit of a fruitless journey.

According to the hedonic treadmill, as a person makes more money, their expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in long-term happiness.

The idea of having more to make us happier is a temporary state of mind at best. The more we get, the more in turn our lives will change. With the higher salary comes the nicer car and bigger house. The feeling of having accomplished the goal will fade and our internal measure of resistance to complacency will be forcing us to set a new goal, which should in theory bring us “greater happiness.” See how this turns into the effect of a hamster being on a wheel?

There is a clinical application to the hedonic treadmill principle such as how to treat a PTSD solider coming from a warzone. Even though they are going through mental trauma that will take time and counselling to mend, their human ability to return to their baseline level of happiness is still there and well practiced psychologists could help them to get back to it.

The concept that biologically your “happiness level” has already been somewhat set is a powerful theory that will hopefully have you looking at happiness in a different way. Instead of making a list of what will give you pleasure, take pleasure in what you already have been given.

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