The Hedonic Treadmill: How We Casually Return to a Baseline of Happiness
The hedonic treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation) is a theory positing that people repeatedly return to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them in either a positive or negative manner.
When it comes to general happiness, humans tend to have a comfortable place that they tend to rely on. For some people, this is a constant state of optimism, and for others, it is a bit pessimistic. Most people, though, tend to fall right in the middle in a casual state of doing "pretty good".
What is interesting about this is that no matter how positive or negative things are in your life, we all tend to return to that comfortable place. Why is that? Well, that is because of the hedonic treadmill, a process or mechanism that reduces the affective impact of emotional events. The process is often conceptualized as a treadmill, since no matter how hard one tries to gain an increase in happiness or a reduction in sadness, one will remain in the same state.
The hedonic adaptation happens in many ways. Generally, the process involves cognitive changes, such as shifting values, goals, and attention and interpretation of a situation. Neurochemical processes also desensitize overstimulated hedonic pathways in the brain, which possibly prevents persistently high levels of intense positive or negative feelings.
But what exactly does all of this mean? And why is it important for us to understand?
To put it plainly, we cannot fight who we are too strongly. We are all products of our environments, culture, upbringing, and so much more. Someone who grew up in a rough neighborhood not knowing when the next meal is going to come will have a very different outlook on life than someone who was raised in an upper middle-class family with all of their needs met. In addition to that, a child who lived with abusive parents will seemingly have a more negative approach to life than a child of loving and caring parents.
Understanding this from both a personal perspective and a social perspective is key to connecting with the world around us and learning to empathize with those from different backgrounds, because not all people can snap out of a bad mindset. For many people out there, the hedonic treadmill is an awful visual of constantly returning to a miserable state, meaning any small negative occurrence will return them to their default sadness. Those who have a more positive spin on their hedonic treadmill tend to have difficulty connecting with people who are consistently down, and it is not helpful to just simply suggest to "snap out of it".
When it comes to major life events, though, the hedonic treadmill can be even more devastating. A death in the family can crash an optimist and lower their baseline deep into the sadness level, and their recovery hence forth seems like an impossible task. Adjustment disorder is an emotional or behavioral reaction to a stressful event or change in a person's life, and typically people who suffer from adjustment disorder remain in a sadder state for significantly longer than usual, disrupting their hedonic treadmill even more. Some people never recover and find themselves in a miserable state for the rest of their lives.
When we think about modern day issues and how they all affect us, it is no wonder that people nowadays seem to be in a perpetually negative state of mind. It does not matter how many positive things happen in a given day when all we are able to focus on are the difficulties of life and the pains within.
This is why it is incredibly important for us to step off of the treadmill and fight the urge to return to that comfortable state. In order to do that, we need to outweigh the pains and stresses in our lives with things we are thankful for. A solid practice is to begin your day with some mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation is a mental training practice that teaches you to slow down racing thoughts, let go of negativity, and calm both your mind and body, which is an excellent way to resist the urge to return to that hedonic treadmill.
Another useful practice is to mentally train yourself to end your day thinking only about the positive events that occurred. It is believed that it takes five positive thoughts to outweigh one negative, and in order to achieve such a goal, it is important to focus mostly on the positives at the end of the day to help slowly raise that baseline and see life through a slightly different lens.
The hedonic treadmill is a different machine for each of us, but at the end of the day, it controls all of us similarly. It prevents us from truly living in the moment, as it relies on us returning to that baseline. It prevents many from experiencing true joy, because of a mentality that heavily outweighs the positives with negatives. It also stops us from experiencing major life events in a healthier and progressive way, disallowing us from expressing genuine emotion in the moment.
This is why it is so important to learn how to step off of your hedonic treadmill. This is not a metaphor to neglect physical activity. Quite the contrary, this is a mental training that is going to test you time and time again. Once you learn how to step off, though, and you taste that sweet, raw emotion, that is when you will experience life to the fullest.
So step off and find ways to release that energy to help you move forward and not rely on a baseline that does nothing special for you. This is the only time I will tell you to not use a treadmill, so I hope that makes you happy.
Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. The American Psychologist, 61(4), 305-314. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.61.4.305
Mancini, A. D., Bonanno, G. A., & Clark, A. E. (2011). Stepping off the hedonic treadmill: Individual differences in response to major life events. Journal of Individual Differences, 32(3), 144-152. https://doi.org/10.1027/1614-0001/a000047