By: Maheshwari Rajesh
I think it's safe to say that most of us want to be happy.
And why wouldn't we? Feeling happy is like seeing through a bubble—the world looks more vivid and exciting. Our heartbeat picks up, a smile breaks on our faces, and everything seems perfect.
But eventually, that bubble is going to burst.
Sadly, no matter how fast we run in the pursuit of happiness, it’s always one step ahead, leaving us in the dust of feeling half-good and half-bad. That state is called our personal happiness set point, and if we want to be happy, we need to transcend it.
Psychologists describe this phenomenon of running—but getting nowhere—as a treadmill. A hedonic treadmill (or hedonic adaptation), to be exact. Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson explains hedonic adaptation as the idea that, “no matter how good something makes us feel (or, for the record, how bad), most of the time we drift back to where we started, emotionally-speaking."
That's why, once we find it, happiness never seems to stay in our grasp; we feel happy, and then we automatically go back to our happiness set point. Any joy becomes fleeting, making it near-impossible to achieve lasting happiness.
But with the bad comes the good. While this treadmill can prevent your joy from enduring, it can also help you avoid lasting sadness. When traumatic experiences occur in our lives, it can help us recover; it makes sure that we don’t stay sad forever.
Hedonic adaptation is just bittersweet.
Still need some proof? Let's take a look at lottery winners and paralyzed accident victims:
Brickman P., Coates D., and Janoff-Bulman R. conducted a study proving that lottery winners—after the novelty of winning a fortune—returned to around their set point in happiness, if not even further below due to changes in their prior relationships. For the victims they studied, after their habituation period (time to get used to their injury), their loss became the new normal for them, which explained their tendency to revert to their pre-incident happiness levels.
In simple terms, no matter what happens (good or bad), we usually end up back at our happiness set point. This begs the question, Is anything in our control?
Fear not. Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky concluded that we could influence forty percent of what determines our happiness set point. But the rest? Fifty percent of it is based on our genetics (thanks mom and dad), and the last ten percent is affected mainly by circumstance, things like the location of our childhood.
The key takeaway is that forty percent— it means that we still have a chance.
So what can we control? Psychologists Kennon Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky detail two reasons for why our happiness isn’t lasting,“...the first involving bottom-up processes (i.e., declining positive emotions generated by the positive change) and the second involving top-down processes (i.e., increased aspirations for even more positivity)."
Okay, that was a lot. Let me simplify.
For instance, let's say you get a new laptop. You're excited because there are so many cool features, and you can finally work on something with a decent battery life. But over time, you associate fewer positive emotions (pride, excitement, joy) with the laptop because you get so used to it, forgetting all the good change it caused.
That idea of taking things for granted is called the bottom-up process. Now, for the top-down.
Halvorson interprets it like this: “The second reason happiness fades is that even when positive events continue—if, for instance, your fitness and healthy eating habits leave you looking great, and this results in lots of new opportunities for romance on a regular basis—the change [that] begins to simply [can] be seen as the ‘new normal’. And as a result, your aspiration level shifts—you feel like you need to look even better."
This process is what Nobel laureate Psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls the “satisfaction treadmill"—having to keep running because we keep shifting our standards higher and higher. It's a race we can never win.
But there is hope. Sheldon and Lyubomirsky actually came up with a way to slow hedonic adaptation—or maybe stop it all together
Introducing your two new best friends, “variety" and "appreciation"
Variety prevents us from getting used to something (remember that laptop?), keeping us active and engaged. If positive experiences don't have diversity, we get bored; rotating our pleasures and mixing it up can ensure that doesn’t happen. According to Halvorson, you should keep this in mind “before making a change.” You need to ask yourself, “will you be able to experience whatever it is in a variety of ways? Because if the answer is no, don't expect the happiness to last."
The second tool, appreciation, can be shown in numerous ways and can also lead to joy. It's the opposite of variety because we’re trying to go out of our way to care and focus on something, rather than letting it blur into the background. The baby step is to pay attention to something more than you usually would. But if you want to take it further, start savoring your experiences and showing gratitude for what you already have, not for what you necessarily need (helping to fight the top-down process).
But wait...we aren't done yet.
Participating in meaningful activities can also help, according to Researcher Martin Seligman. This could mean altruism (volunteering or even helping a friend) and participating in activities that allow you to get into a feeling of "flow", or what some may call “the zone”. In this state, you are so engrossed in an activity that you get lost in it. According to Elizabeth Scott, MS, this only happens when, “we face a challenge that's both fun and the right kind of challenge for our abilities: not too difficult lest we feel discouraged but just difficult enough to keep us feeling challenged." Amazingly, this effect seems to be immune to hedonic adaptation, largely because we are completely satisfied with what we are doing that we aren’t growing disinterested.
In the end, a huge part of whether we feel happy or not is up to us, and reaching our ultimate goal is never easy. But, if used correctly, these four tools—variety, appreciation, altruism, and flow—can help us battle hedonic adaptation, making sure that we finally take a step off the treadmill and start actually moving forward.
Brickman, Philip, et al. “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 36, no. 8, 1978, pp. 917–927., doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.117.
Diener, Ed, et al. “Happiest People Revisited.” Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol. 13, no. 2, 2018, pp. 176–184., doi:10.1177/1745691617697077.
Elizabeth Scott, MS. “How Hedonic Adaptation Robs You of Happiness-and How to Change That.” Verywell Mind, www.verywellmind.com/hedonic-adaptation-4156926.
Halvorson, Heidi Grant. “How to Keep Happiness From Fading.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 15 Aug. 2012, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-science-success/201208/how-keep-happiness-fading.
“The Hedonic Treadmill - Are We Forever Chasing Rainbows?” PositivePsychology.com, 29 May 2020, positivepsychology.com/hedonic-treadmill/.
Jia, Jayson S., et al. “The Role of Hedonic Behavior in Reducing Perceived Risk.” Psychological Science, vol. 28, no. 1, 2016, pp. 23–35., doi:10.1177/0956797616671712.
Sheldon, Kennon M., and Sonja Lyubomirsky. “The Challenge of Staying Happier.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 38, no. 5, 2012, pp. 670–680., doi:10.1177/0146167212436400.