How to be happy – 9. Get off the hedonic treadmill

Lesson: We adapt quickly to the good and the bad

We saw in Strategy 8 that, outside extreme stress or deprivation, circumstances add little to happiness. But what about changing those circumstances – wouldn’t getting a different job, winning the lottery or moving to a new state make us happier? The research might surprise you.

  • Happiness boosts from life events don’t last (1), and in most cases people adapt within about three months. (2)
  • Even following drastic changes in conditions, people tend to return to their pre-change happiness levels. Amazingly, this happens for extreme highs like winning the lottery as well as severe losses like becoming paraplegic. (3)
  • Despite a windfall like winning the lottery, people can still become depressed. (4)

Why don’t ‘better’ circumstances bring us greater long-term happiness? Psychologists call it the hedonic treadmill – a tendency to quickly take stock of the new situation and revise our expectations accordingly (5). For example one year after winning the lottery, winners enjoyed simple pleasures like watching TV less than the average person – they seemed to need more to be happy.

Adaptation appears to happen when a change is continuous or repetitive – as most changes in circumstances are (6). Because of this repetitive exposure, people habituate to extreme as well as routine conditions – they take advantage for granted, and learn to live with misfortune (7).

Happiness strategy: Get off the hedonic treadmill

Because people rapidly adapt to new conditions, changing your external situation leads at best to a short-term boost in happiness. Life events affecting relationships, employment or even health can temporarily shift your happiness level, but hedonic adaptation will eventually, and often quickly, return happiness to pre-change levels.

Realizing that externals don’t bring long-term satisfaction can take a lot of pressure off you. Change is often wonderful, stimulating and good for our growth, but constantly switching your job, partner or ‘stuff’ can be a distraction as well as a source of disappointment. As a strategy for happiness, running after external answers means you have to keep running to maintain the good feelings. To get a sustainable happiness boost we have think and act differently – as later strategies will explore.

We can’t leave the topic of life conditions without taking a closer look at money. Cyndi Lauper, among others, said it changes everything. Does that include happiness? Check out the next strategy to find out.

Research sources:

(5) Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. T. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M. H. Appley (Ed.), Adaptation-level theory: A symposium (pp. 287-302). New York: Academic Press.

(3) Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 36(8), 917-927.

(7) Costa, P. T., & McCrae, R. R. (1980). Influence of extraversion and neuroticism on subjective well-being: Happy and unhappy people. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 38(4), 668-678.

(1) Headey, B., & Wearing, A. (1989). Personality, life events, and subjective well-being: Toward a dynamic equilibrium model. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 57(4), 731-739.

(6) Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing happiness: The architecture of sustainable change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111-131.

(4) Nissle, S., & Bschor, T. (2002). Winning the jackpot and depression: Money cannot buy happiness. International Journal of Psychiatry in Clinical Practice, 6(3), 183-186.

(2) Suh, E., Diener, E., & Fujita, F. (1996). Events and subjective well-being: Only recent events matter. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 70(5), 1091-1102.

How to be happy:
101 practical strategies drawn from positive psychology.

This post is part of a series covering simple, practical, research-inspired, happiness strategies you can use in your own life. For more information about the series, check out the 101 Happiness Strategies main page.

Image by maHidoodi under Creative Commons.

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