June 14

Hedonic Adaptation: Chasing Pleasure on the Treadmill of Life

Hedonic adaptation, the tendency to quickly return to a baseline level of satisfaction, no matter what happens to us in life, is Mother Nature’s bait and switch. All sorts of life events we think would make us happier actually don’t, or at least they don’t for long. Nir Eyal.

Over four decades ago, three psychologists published a ground-breaking study on happiness. The study was titled “Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?” and remains one of the most-cited and referenced happiness studies to this day.

The Happiness study adopted an unconventional method for exploring the concept of happiness: it compared lottery winners with accident victims—two groups often stereotypically categorized as happy and unhappy, respectively. But the study's conclusions were startling.

The study found that lottery winners found simple pleasures in life much less satisfying and were, in fact, not that much happier than accident victims. This study link, in fact, summarizes the paper thus:

“TLDR: Lottery winners were not happier than controls and took significantly less pleasure from mundane events. Paraplegics also demonstrated a contrast effect, not by enhancing minor pleasures but by idealizing their past, which did not help their present happiness”.

The perplexing question is: How does a lottery winner experience more or less the same level of happiness as a paralyzed accident victim? As the study highlights, the answer is a technical term that has since entered the cultural lexicon: hedonic adaptation.


The human being is the only animal that thinks about the future. This simple fact is the foundation of our greatest joys and our deepest sufferings. Daniel Gilbert.

Hedonism is a philosophical concept that says pleasure is the ultimate goal in life. The term comes from the Greek word "hedone," meaning pleasure.

While the original philosophers proposed that all human pursuits are geared toward immediate gratification, the concept has undergone many iterations since then.

Epicurus, another Greek philosopher, believed the key to happiness wasn't simply about chasing sensory pleasures but achieving a tranquil state free from fear and pain. He called this state ataraxia and recommended simple living, intellectual contemplation, and good friendships to achieve tranquility.

The concept of hedonism has since continued to evolve, but the underlying theory of pleasure-seeking and pain reduction still applies.

It’s easy to see how prevalent hedonistic values are in our society today, given rising consumerism, a focus on personal well-being, and individual freedoms.

Economists didn’t account for Hedonism

When our economists started writing theories centuries ago, they predicted that as people got richer, the marginal utility of income would fall, causing us to shift our energies away from material consumption to higher pursuits.

But reality disproves that theory completely.

The wealthiest people are often the ones who have to work the hardest to keep their wealth. We are victims of the hedonic treadmill. And there’s a reason for this. It’s called Hedonic Adaptation. 

Hedonic Adaptation

The good things that happen to us make us happy only for a short time because we quickly adapt to them. Daniel Gilbert.

Here’s where things get tricky: The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, describes how we quickly return to a stable level of happiness despite major positive or adverse events. The initial surge or dip of happiness we feel when good or bad things happen does not last very long, and we return to our baseline level of happiness—where we were prior to the positive or negative event.

Win the lottery? You’ll be ecstatic for a while, but soon enough, you’ll return to your usual mood. Lose your job? It’s rough, but you’ll bounce back eventually.

As social psychologist David Myers put it, hedonic adaptation is why

Even substantial increases in personal income and consumption have had surprisingly small effects on personal happiness.

One of the reasons we don’t stay overjoyed, for instance, is that our brains have evolved to survive rather than to be happy. Positive experiences aren’t prioritized as much as ones that threaten our survival.

The message is clear: no matter how high we climb the success ladder or how many material possessions we gather, we're wired to return to our baseline level of happiness.

Every time I think I've found happiness, a new iPhone comes out.

The trap is everywhere

What’s the point of the mansion or the Ferrari if the thrill will soon wear off? How do we get off the hedonic treadmill?

Research shows that embracing a simple life and focusing on non-material sources of happiness can help, but it's not without its challenges. The critics are vocal. Here’s an example:

As someone who eschewed watching TV and shopping (two obviously hedonistic pursuits) to instead focus on the nobler task of appreciating the human body and mind’s potential by running marathons, I was rattled when I stumbled upon a 1983 opinion column in the NY Times. According to Howard Schneider (editorial assistant, who “does not run”), “marathoners offer a supreme spectacle of self-absorption.”

Schneider calls the marathon “the ideal narcissistic sport for our time since their only goal is to “finish the race.” He points out that runners, clad in designer gear and cheered by crowds, seem oblivious to the urban ills around them, focused only on themselves and their goals.

I can only presume that Schneider didn’t make the cut on his middle school track team or was severely impacted by the road closures due to the NY Times Marathon.

Rationalizations aside, what Schneider says stings because there’s a kernel of truth in there. The point he’s making is what psychologists have termed psychological hedonism, which suggests that all human actions, even those that seem altruistic, are driven by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Coping with Hedonic adaptation

Like all thorny life issues, philosophers and scientists offer easy-on-paper, extremely hard-to-implement suggestions.

In a dark twist, Philip Brickman, the author behind the Happiness Study quoted earlier, made his way onto the roof of Tower Plaza, the tallest building in Ann Arbor, and jumped to his death. He was 38 years old. The man who’d done one of psychology’s foundational studies about happiness couldn’t make his own pain go away.

Hedonic adaptation teaches us that while pursuing pleasure is natural, it’s also a bit of a trap. The more we get, the more we want, and the cycle continues. But by understanding this phenomenon and perhaps taking a page from ancient philosophers and modern psychology, we can strive for a more balanced, fulfilling life that isn't just about chasing the next big thing.

Because, in the end, happiness might just be about enjoying the journey, not just reaching the destination.

After a while, the new car smell fades, and you're left with, 'I should have bought a boat.’ Unknown.



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