Hedonic Adaptation Explained: Running on a Hedonic Treadmill

Hedonic Adaptation Explained: Running on a Hedonic Treadmill

People tend to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or changes in their lives. This is called hedonic adaptation or hedonic treadmill. The concept asserts that individuals have a baseline level of happiness that they return to over time irrespective of the circumstance they encounter or situations that they are in.

Hedonic Adaptation and Happiness: The Connection

Origin of the Concept

American social scientists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell coined the term “hedonic treadmill” in their 1971 essay “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.” The term was specifically used to describe how wealth does not increase the level of happiness.

The modern usage of the term now serves as a metaphor for the tendency of humans to pursue one pleasure after another as if they are running on a treadmill. The pursuit is centered on the goal of maintaining a high level of happiness.

Note that the concept is an expansion of the idea of relative happiness which has been around for decades. Brickman and other researchers explored further hedonic pleasure using the Adaptation Level Theory that was first proposed by Harry Helson in 1964.

The theory argues that how a particular individual perceives or judges stimulation is dependent upon a comparison of former stimulations. It specifically states that individuals have an “adaptation level” for each type of stimulus they encounter, which is their baseline or reference point for evaluating that stimulus.

For example, individuals who have always lived near busy roads characterized by high vehicular traffic volume and pedestrian traffic have a higher adaptation or tolerance level for noise than those who are used to living in quieter environments.

Hedonic adaptation or hedonic treadmill was born from the same idea about adaptation level. It explains how an individual adapts to a particular new circumstance that might trigger a change in his or her emotions before reverting to a baseline emotional state.

A Deeper Understanding

To understand further how hedonic adaptation explains why happiness is a fleeting experience, consider winning the lottery as an example. The winner may initially experience a significant boost in happiness but his or her feeling will return to a neutral level.

People essentially become accustomed to new circumstances. The initial excitement or novelty of the event or situation wears off. Additional studies about desensitization explain the psychological and neurological basis behind this phenomenon.

Researchers R. L. Solomon and J. D. Corbit explain that the hedonic pathways in the brain, which are involved in experiencing pleasure and happiness, may become less sensitive to intense positive or negative feelings due to overstimulation resulting in neurochemical processes that prevent these feelings from lasting for a long time.

The concept of hedonic adaptation suggests that happiness tends to be fleeting because people have a limited capacity to experience positive emotions. Individuals have the tendency to quickly become accustomed to new sources of pleasure or positive experiences.

Nevertheless, based on the aforesaid, people are prone to struggle with maintaining long-term increases in happiness and well-being. This may compel them to constantly seek out new experiences or material possession in an attempt to increase their happiness.

Other Related Concepts

Researchers have looked further into hedonic adaptation to understand the science behind happiness. One notable derivative concept is Hedonic Adaptation Prevention which provides a model for understanding and achieving happiness or satisfaction.

Kennon M. Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky suggested that people should optimize positive stimuli to slow down the process involved in hedonic adaptation. They also noted that rising aspirations often result in lower well-being, thus suggesting that this route should be minimized to impede hedonic adaptation to positive stimuli.

Note that hedonic adaptation asserts that while accomplishment can bring forth happiness, the positive emotional state is temporary. The Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model, however, suggests that happiness should not be associated with end goals.

Another derivative concept was born from both hedonic adaptation and Hedonic Adaptation Prevention concepts to provide insights about romantic relationships while suggesting how to keep a healthy and lasting relationship with a significant other.

Hedonic adaption also explains why some relationships end or how couples end up bored in their relationships. The euphoria from the initial stage of a relationship is always bound. Involve individuals become too complacent or accustomed to routines.

The Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model suggests that couples should appreciate the positive stimuli that come with their relationship while also working together toward creating new positive experiences. A relationship is about making things work day in and day out.


  • Brickman, P. and Campbell, D. T. 1971. “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.” In ed. M. H. Apley, Adaptation Level Theory: A Symposium. Academic Press
  • Sheldon, K. M. and Lyubomirsky, S. 2012. “The Challenge of Staying Happier.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 38(5): 670-680. DOI: 1177/0146167212436400
  • Quoidbach, J. and Dunn, E. W. 2013. “Give It Up: A Strategy for Combating Hedonic Adaptation.” Social Psychological and Personality Science. 4(5): DOI: 1177/1948550612473489
  • Solomon, R. L. and Corbit, J. D. 1974. “An Opponent-Process Theory of Motivation: I. Temporal Dynamics of Affect. Psychological Review. 81(2): 119-145. DOI: 1037/h0036128