The Hedonic Treadmill

The following contains excerpts from The Positive Psychology Program, The Hedonic Treadmill-Are We Forever Chasing Rainbows? (Sep 5, 2016).

The Hedonic Treadmill is the theory that proposes we return to a certain level of happiness, regardless of what happens to us. The concept was first published in 1971 by psychologists Brickman and Campbell. During the 70’s the concept was known as hedonic adaptation, but twenty years later, Michael Eysenck likened the theory to that of a treadmill –a more modern and understandable example.

Happiness Set Point
Science has shown that circumstances don’t account for the major part of our happiness. The Happiness Set Point refers to the genetically determined predisposition for happiness that is responsible for about 50% of the differences between you and anyone else. Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky says:

“1. If you struggle with a low set point, meaning, you tend to gravitate towards sadness or depression, don’t be so hard on yourself, to an extent you’re dealing with a stacked deck.
2. Still 50%, as high at it is, is not 100%, so there’s plenty of leeway for improvement. Your actions, thoughts and attitudes account for 40% of your happiness, which is quite significant.”

According to the theory of the Hedonic Treadmill, regardless of what happens to someone, their level of happiness will return to their baseline after the event. This means that if you get married, get a promotion, lose a job, or suffer an accident, after a certain period of time you are likely to return to your set point.

There will be an initial spike in happiness or sadness after the event. However, as time goes on, the feeling of whatever emotion was brought on by said event, will start to dissipate, habituation will kick in, and eventually you will be back at the level of happiness you were at before the event.

If you are a person who experiences an abundance of positive events in a spaced out, but relatively short period of time, then the constant influx of happiness may lead you to believe that your general happiness has increased, BUT that’s not what the research says.

More recent research challenges the idea that adaptation is inevitable and shows that adaption processes may vary across events, individuals, and even within people over time. This research is even starting to reveal that change in our baseline level of happiness is possible, our baseline is positive and not neutral and that we have multiple set points that might move in opposite directions.

How to Become Happier
Tal Ben Shahar is a writer in the field of positive psychology. He suggests different tips for amplifying our level of happiness:

  1. Give permission to be human: accept our emotions, even fear, sadness, anxiety. Rejecting them leads to frustration.
  2. Simplify: we need to do less. Focus on one thing at a time, eliminate multitasks.
  3. Find meaning and pleasure: engage in goals we want to achieve versus what we feel obligated to do, spend two hours per week with our hobbies, spend time with our loved ones, etc.
  4. Focus on the positive, on what works well for us, and be grateful. Write 5 things every day before you sleep that you are grateful for, even seemingly minuscule things like the smile of a stranger, the sound of birds chirping, and so on.
  5. Increase the effort you put into your relationships. Go on a date with your wife or your husband or spend more time speaking to your children.
  6. Be mindful of the mind-body connection: Exercise, practice mindfulness meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises.

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