Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Why we — despite the good and bad — fall back to a baseline level of happiness

Trudging toward happiness: What is the hedonic treadmill?

Hedonic treadmill
Image source: Shutterstock
  • The concept of the hedonic treadmill is that regardless of whether good or bad things happen to us, we always return to a set point of happiness and well-being. Hence, we have to constantly work to stay at a given degree of happiness, as though we were on a treadmill.
  • Several studies exist that back up this finding, including one conducted on lottery winners and paraplegics.
  • While this may seem like a bad thing, there are advantages; in addition, it may be possible increase your baseline level of happiness through certain activities.


Try to recall a moment that made you feel awful. Maybe your car was totaled in an accident, you got fired from your job, or you went through a bad breakup. So long as these things happened a little while ago, you probably feel all right today. The same might be true for moments that made you feel fantastic: getting a promotion at work, going on a really satisfying vacation, or winning a competition. Those things might have felt good in the moment, but they didn't add up overtime, making you happier and happier.

Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill. Our lives seem to be connected to a fixed point of happiness by an elastic band — things may swing our level of happiness out in one direction or the other, but the elastic band brings us back to a hedonic "set point." The "treadmill" part of this concept comes from the idea that we must constantly work to maintain a level of happiness above and beyond this set point.

How true is this, really?

For many, the idea of the hedonic treadmill is counterintuitive. What if you were to win the lottery, or, conversely, become paralyzed? Wouldn't you feel happier or sadder overall in those cases?

To answer this question, researchers looked at those two groups specifically. Researchers interviewed both lottery winners, paraplegics, and a control group. For the lottery winners and the paraplegics, their happiness-affecting event took place from one month to a year before the interviews. They found that lottery winners were just as happy as they had been before winning the lottery, about just as happy as the controls, and expected no change in their happiness in the future. The paraplegics were slightly less happy than they had been before, but still rated their lives as happy overall, and were happier than the researchers had expected them to be given their circumstances. Importantly, the paraplegics also expected to become happier in the future, unlike the lottery winners.

Admittedly, this isn't a circumstance that many of us can relate to. But further research has been conducted on more common events. One study, for instance, looked at transitions in marital status, such as getting married, getting divorced or becoming a widow or widower. More specifically, it measured 24,000 people's happiness over several years using a survey that covered a variety of subjects, including the respondents' overall happiness for that year on a scale from 1 to 10 and their marital status.

On average, the majority of respondents returned to their baseline happiness within a few years. However, the researchers did find an exception to the hedonic treadmill effect: respondents who reacted extremely strongly to a given event did fail to return to their baseline happiness even years later.

So, are we doomed to live an entirely neutral experience? 

Not quite. First, most people have a positive hedonic set point. One study reviewed the literature on the hedonic treadmill and found that roughly three-quarters of all individuals have a generally positive set point. This finding was drawn from a diverse sample of different cultures, ranging from the Amish to the African Maasai, adding to its strength.

Second, there is, indeed, some leeway in where our hedonic set points lie. Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky estimates that genetics are responsible for about 50 percent of where our baseline lies — unfortunately, this is entirely out of our control. Another 10 percent is attributable to circumstances largely outside of our control, like appearance or geographical location. Another 40 percent is up to the activities that we choose to engage in — fortunately, these are very much under our control.

Activities such as exercise, expressing gratitude, altruism, and taking time to savor or appreciate the good things in life have all been shown to influence short-term wellbeing very much, and there is evidence that they can nudge that hedonic set point up the scale in the long-term as well.

Additionally, the hedonic treadmill is due, in part, to processes of desensitization and adaptation — we get used to things. Because of this, variety is a powerful means of combatting the hedonic set point's inexorable tug. Persistently engaging in a variety of positive activities or varying how one performs a given positive activity can trick your stubborn brain into actually feeling good about things.

Really, the hedonic treadmill is rather Zen: nothing is permanent, which is something we should take solace in. We'll get through the next breakup or demotion, and we'll probably be okay. When it comes to becoming happier people, the research indicates that part of it is out of our control, in which case we don't need to worry about it, and part of it is, indeed, under our control — that's the stuff we should focus on.

Take your career to the next level by raising your EQ

Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.

Gear
  • Daniel Goleman's 1995 book Emotional Intelligence catapulted the term into widespread use in the business world.
  • One study found that EQ (emotional intelligence) is the top predictor of performance and accounts for 58% of success across all job types.
  • EQ has been found to increase annual pay by around $29,000 and be present in 90% of top performers.
Keep reading Show less

Just How Much Land Does the Federal Government Own — and Why?

The rough beauty of the American West seems as far as you can get from the polished corridors of power in Washington DC.

Surprising Science

The rough beauty of the American West seems as far as you can get from the polished corridors of power in Washington DC. Until you look at the title to the land. The federal government owns large tracts of the western states: from a low of 29.9% in Montana, already more than the national average, up to a whopping 84.5% in Nevada.

Keep reading Show less

Can VR help us understand layers of oppression?

Researchers are using technology to make visual the complex concepts of racism, as well as its political and social consequences.

Future of Learning
  • Often thought of first as gaming tech, virtual reality has been increasingly used in research as a tool for mimicking real-life scenarios and experiences in a safe and controlled environment.
  • Focusing on issues of oppression and the ripple affect it has throughout America's political, educational, and social systems, Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn of Columbia University School of Social Work and her team developed a VR experience that gives users the opportunity to "walk a mile" in the shoes of a black man as he faces racism at three stages in his life: as a child, during adolescence, and as an adult.
  • Cogburn says that the goal is to show how these "interwoven oppressions" continue to shape the world beyond our individual experiences. "I think the most important and powerful human superpower is critical consciousness," she says. "And that is the ability to think, be aware and think critically about the world and people around you...it's not so much about the interpersonal 'Do I feel bad, do I like you?'—it's more 'Do I see the world as it is? Am I thinking critically about it and engaging it?'"
Keep reading Show less

Russia claims world's first COVID-19 vaccine but skepticism abounds

President Vladimir Putin announces approval of Russia's coronavirus vaccine but scientists warn it may be unsafe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced coronavirus vaccine at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020.

Credit: Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Coronavirus
  • Vladimir Putin announced on Tuesday that a COVID-19 vaccine has been approved in Russia.
  • Scientists around the world are worried that the vaccine is unsafe and that Russia fast-tracked the vaccine without performing the necessary phase 3 trials.
  • To date, Russia has had nearly 900,000 registered cases of coronavirus.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast