The hedonic treadmill: the “happiness killer”

The Hedonic Treadmill encapsulates the idea that humans consistently return to their “happiness set point”, irrespective of positive or negative experiences. The concept of the Hedonic Treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, was coined by two psychologists, Brickman and Campbell, in 1971.

The Science Behind the Hedonic Treadmill

Imagine winning the lottery. Would that make you enter a happier state of mind permanently? Perhaps yes, right? Imagine now having a horrendous accident and getting paralyzed. Would that make you significantly less happy permanently?

In a classic experiment conducted by Brickman and others, the participants who had won the lottery and those who suffered a life-altering accident returned to their happiness baseline just a year later. Even such significant events were not sufficient to permanently change their levels of life satisfaction.

No matter what happens to our life, over time, we adjust to the new normal. This is great when it comes to unpleasant events, but it also happens with achievements and fortunate events. This is all thanks to the hedonic treadmill: a psychological adaptation that helps us maintain emotional equilibrium.

Hedonic Treadmill and human evolution

The hedonic treadmill was crucial for our survival. Our ancestors could not afford to be complacent after a successful hunt, nor could they afford to be perpetually devastated after a failed one. The hedonic treadmill helped them adapt quickly to new circumstances, enabling them to stay motivated and continuously strive for better.

Consider a sad event you have experienced. You may not be the same person as before, but you found the strength to move on. In essence, the hedonic treadmill acts as an emotional thermostat, promoting resilience and readiness to face the next challenge.

When it comes to positive events though, the hedonic treadmill seems to neutralize our joy and excitement. This is why some people call the hedonic treadmill “the happiness killer”. But is this label justified? Arguably, it is not so much a happiness killer as it is a regulator of our emotional baseline. It prevents us from getting too comfortable with our successes, but equally shields us from being indefinitely bogged down by our failures.

Did you know?

In the 19th century, treadmills were a means of punishing incarcerated individuals in England, providing a monotonous task aimed at reforming prisoners through hard labor. These early treadmills were essentially large wheels that prisoners walked on, turning a shaft to grind corn or pump water, which also made the treadmill a useful tool for labor in prisons.

Jumping off the treadmill: Strategies for sustainable wellbeing

As useful as it may have been for our survival, the hedonic treadmill can often seem to dampen our wellbeing and our sentiment of contentment. Here are three strategies to curb its impact and promote a higher sense of wellbeing:

Practicing gratitude: While we might momentarily appreciate things, the hedonic treadmill often drives us to look for what’s next. Research shows that adopting a consistently grateful mindset can significantly improve our sense of well-being. By acknowledging what we’re grateful for daily, we can nurture a more optimistic outlook and enhance our physical health. Establishing routines, such as maintaining a gratitude journal, can help us appreciate the existing joys in our lives, thus elevating our overall happiness.

Mindful living: Engaging in mindfulness activities, such as meditation or yoga, can help reduce stress and improve focus by bringing attention to the present moment. It is no coincidence that these practices have survived for thousands of years. They cultivate a sense of self-awareness that prevents us from becoming overwhelmed by external circumstances. By embracing mindfulness, we learn to appreciate our current situation, leading to a sustained sense of satisfaction and happiness.

Prioritizing relationships: A Harvard study spanning over 80 years found that close relationships, more than money or fame, keep people happy throughout their lives. These bonds guard against life’s discontents, aid in delaying mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. As social animals, strong, positive relationships are vital to our long-term happiness. It is not only about having others to rely on in difficult times but also celebrating small victories and enjoying simple pleasures. Spend more time with those you appreciate, sever ties with those who drain your energy, and learn to resolve conflicts swiftly and constructively.


  • The hedonic treadmill has played a role in our survival by regulating our emotions.
  • It causes individuals to revert to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of significant positive events like winning the lottery or negative occurrences such as life-altering injuries.
  • To mitigate its impact on our overall well-being, we can engage in practices like gratitude and mindfulness, and prioritize relationships with those we value.
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