Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model: A Theory of Happiness

Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model: A Theory of Happiness

Everyone wants to be happy. But understanding what happiness really means can be tough. Common definitions describe happiness as a mental or emotional state of well-being determined by positive emotions or pleasant feelings ranging from intense joy to a strong sense of contentment or satisfaction. It is also important to take note of the fact that happiness has environmental and biological bases. Thus, by default, any pursuit aimed at achieving or at least understanding this emotional state is challenging because of these underpinnings.

A psychology-based theory offers a simple albeit thorough understanding of the definition and nature of happiness. Identified and explored further by Kennon M. Sheldon, Ph.D., professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri and an established researcher in positive psychology, the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model is an approach to understanding and achieving lasting happiness or satisfaction.

Explainer: Understand How Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model Can Help Achieve Happiness

Note that this model has several premises and predictions. It is derived from the concept of hedonic adaption which asserts that people often adapt or get used to a particular event, situation, or stimulus that stirs emotional responses.

Happiness or the positive feelings associated with a particular situation can be fleeting. Hedonic adaptation essentially illustrates why people experience a gain or loss in well-being after prolonged exposure to positive or negative stimuli.

To further demonstrate the concept of hedonic adaption, imagine being in a new relationship. The first one to two years often brings forth profound happiness and excitement. After some time, the euphoric feeling fades because of too much familiarity with routines.

Some couples end up being too comfortable with one another while others tend to neglect the importance of sustaining the relationship. This is also true with a new job, moving to a new environment, or meeting a new set of friends.

It is important to also note the fact that hedonic adaptation occurs in both positive and negative events or situations and that this phenomenon has evolutionary functions.

Positive or negative stimuli can leave an individual too focused on the intense emotion and renders him or her unable to function. High arousal can also be psychologically and physiologically harmful if experienced chronically and the body naturally adapts through disassociation to reduce susceptibility to stress-related illnesses.

Bottom-Up and Top-Down Processes

Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky further tested other predictions of the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model in a three-month, three-wave longitudinal study of 481 students. The results revealed that the model indeed specifies two routes by which the positive or well-being gains derived from a positive life change are eroded.

The first involves a bottom-up process in which positive emotions from positive life change decline over time. Essentially, an individual becomes too accustomed to the positive stimuli, thus taking it for granted or considering it as the new standard or new normal.

Furthermore, the second route involves a top-down process in which an individual increases aspirations for achieving positive life change to sustain or improve positive emotions. As an individual becomes more accustomed to the positive stimuli, he or she will begin to seek novelty or demand more from the stimuli to sustain the same level of happiness.

Although the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention model is a derivative of hedonic adaptation, it actually provides guidelines to gear away from the inevitable adaptive tendencies of individuals and thus, sustain happiness.

The study of Sheldon and Lyubomirsky suggests that people should optimize positive stimuli to slow down the process involved in hedonic adaptation. Furthermore, the study also revealed that rising aspirations often result in lower well-being, hence suggesting that this route should be minimized to impede hedonic adaptation to positive stimuli.

Additional and Related Studies

Other researchers have also explored the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model. Jordi Quoidbach and Elizabeth W. Dunn specifically identified a strategy for combatting hedonic adaptation through a study that involved determining satisfaction from chocolate consumption.

Findings showed that individuals who previously abstained from consuming chocolates had significantly enjoyed the food more than those individuals who were never subjected to a period of abstinence or those individuals who were never given special consumption or abstinence instructions.

The aforementioned result provided the first evidence that temporarily giving up something pleasurable may provide an effective route to happiness. In addition, it could explain why some cultures and religions have incorporated the concept of abstinence in their cultural or doctrinal practices.

Another two-part study by Sheldon and Ferguson also illustrated the application of the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model in boosting happiness or improving the well-being of individuals, particularly by demonstrating how listening to positive music may be an effective way to improve happiness, particularly when it is combined with an intention to become happier.

The first part showed how participants tasked to listen to music for 12 minutes with the intention of boosting their mood reported higher positive mood than another set of participants tasked to simply listen to music without attempting to alter their mood. Note that this effect was qualified by the predicted interaction: the music had to be positive balanced.

Furthermore, in the second part, participants who were instructed to intentionally try to become happier versus those who did not try reported higher increases in subjective happiness after listening to positively balanced music during five separate lab visits over a two-week period.

Conclusion and Takeaway: Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model as a Theory of Staying Happy

From the aforementioned discussion and the cited studies, the Hedonic Adaptation Prevention Model offers an interesting insight into the nature of happiness and human goals and desires.

Most people associate happiness with personal or professional achievements. But the theory of hedonic adaptation argues 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.

Studies revealed that individuals can sustain happiness as long as they keep having or optimizing their positive experiences while avoiding wanting too much.

Furthermore, studies also suggest that individuals have the capacity to make mental changes leading to new positive experiences. Thus, rather than getting hung up on the destination, people should focus more on enjoying their experience of the journey. As the proverbial goes, happiness is found not in finishing something but in doing it.


  • Ferguson, Y. L. and Sheldon, K. M. 2013. “Trying to be Happier Really Can Work: Two Experimental Studies.” The Journal of Positive Psychology. 8(1): 23-33. DOI: 1080/17439760.2012.747000
  • Quoidbach, J. and Dunn, E. W. 2013. “Give It Up.” Social Psychological and Personality Science. 4(5): 563-568. DOI: 1177/1948550612473489
  • Sheldon, K. M. and Lyubomirsky, S. 2012. “The Challenge of Staying Happier.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 38(5): 670-680. DOI: 1177/0146167212436400