We humans are funny creatures. We chase after promotions, dream houses, fancy cars, and idyllic relationships, all in the pursuit of that elusive state known as "happiness".

But how many times have you achieved a long-desired goal, only to find the joy and satisfaction fleeting? This is not a reflection of ingratitude or insatiability, rather, it's a psychological phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation.

Intriguing, isn’t it?

Hedonic adaptation, also termed the "hedonic treadmill," is a concept deeply rooted in psychology. It refers to our innate ability to bounce back to a relatively stable level of happiness, despite the highs and lows we experience in life.

Here's how it works: Imagine landing your dream job. You're ecstatic, of course! You feel a surge of happiness, satisfaction, and achievement. However, as the weeks pass, the joy begins to fade. That new job becomes just... well, your job. This doesn't mean you no longer appreciate your good fortune, it simply reflects your human capacity to adapt to your new normal.

It's a little like buying a new car. The first few weeks, the smell of fresh leather, the shiny dashboard, the crisp sound system - it all fills you with pleasure. But over time, you stop noticing these details. The car is still a source of satisfaction, but it no longer delivers that initial spike in happiness.

This is a great little diagram I found over on Medium:

Hedonic Adaptation: Why Don’t We Feel Satisfied and Happy? - Özge Nur CANBULAT

Now, it's not just about the good times. The hedonic treadmill also applies when life hands us lemons. Job loss, breakups, personal loss, while initially causing emotional upset and a dip in happiness, over time, we adjust and return to our prior emotional baseline. It's our emotional resilience at play.

The Implications of the Hedonic Treadmill

But why does hedonic adaptation matter?

Its significance lies in the insight it offers about the human pursuit of happiness. You see, hedonic adaptation suggests that external events don't impact our long-term happiness as much as we might think. So, is striving for that promotion, that house, or that vacation the real key to happiness?

Many experts say no.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't aim for success or strive to improve our lives. However, it highlights the importance of not pinning our hopes for long-term happiness on these external achievements.

Breaking Free From the Treadmill

Research suggests focusing on experiences rather than material goods can bring more lasting happiness. Experiences offer fresh and unique moments that are less susceptible to hedonic adaptation.

Lastly, personal growth and meaningful relationships, rather than simply the pursuit of success or material wealth, have been shown to offer deeper and more sustainable happiness.

Hedonic adaptation is a fundamental part of our human psychology. It's a phenomenon that's all about balance, helping us to recover from life's blows and keeping us grounded when we're on cloud nine. Understanding hedonic adaptation can offer a valuable perspective shift, reminding us that long-lasting happiness often lies in the simple, the meaningful, and the appreciative. So, while the treadmill keeps turning, remember, it's up to us to dance to our own tune.



  1. Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. T. (1971). "Hedonic relativism and planning the good society". In M. H. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation-level theory (pp. 287-305). New York: Academic Press.
  2. Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). "Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being". American Psychologist, 61(4), 305–314. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.61.4.305
  3. Lyubomirsky, S. (2011). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. Penguin Books.
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