Hedonic Adaptation: Why Are We Never Happy Enough?

Winning the lottery, getting a promotion, or finding a partner won't make you as happy as you think. Find out how hedonic adaptation is related to your happiness.
Hedonic Adaptation: Why Are We Never Happy Enough?

Last update: 18 June, 2022

At certain points in your life, you’ve probably found yourself thinking things like “When I find a partner/get a raise/get promoted I’ll be happy”. At times like these, you think that the goal you’re missing out on would complete your feelings of well-being. Yet, when you do reach it, its positive impact is really short-lived. This is due to a phenomenon known as hedonic adaptation.

It isn’t a disorder but a mechanism that operates in all of us. The ability to adapt is essential for our survival but if we’re not alert, it can lead to permanent dissatisfaction. We explain why.

Hedonic adaptation

Hedonic adaptation is the tendency in humans to return to the base level of happiness shortly after experiencing any kind of change. For example, you might think that by winning the lottery your life would improve exponentially and your happiness would last for all time. Or, that by having an accident and losing a limb you’d be deeply unhappy forever.

However, the evidence doesn’t support this thinking. In fact, in reality, it’s common for people to return to a stable level of happiness relatively quickly. Thus, neither winning the lottery nor having an accident cause lasting changes in our general states of mind.

This process can be extremely positive when you face painful events such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a job layoff. That’s because you’re able to recover and move on. On the other hand, in the face of pleasant events such as a salary increase, the purchase of a new car, or a marriage, hedonic adaptation causes your extra happiness to quickly fade.

woman smiling

Why does this phenomenon occur?

As you can see, hedonic adaptation plays an important role. So how does it actually work? As a matter of fact, there are several factors that explain this rapid decrease in happiness:

Habituation

The main reason why hedonic adaptation occurs is that you get used to the presence of the positive element in your life. While it’s still new, you experience extra happiness. Nevertheless, once you have it every day, its impact on you loses its strength.

This is a process similar to that involved in addictions. Over time, you get used to the dopamine surges and the substance or event loses its reinforcing potential. Consequently, you need increasingly more to experience that euphoria.

Lack of effort

Interestingly, not all changes are equally influenced by hedonic adaptation. In fact, it’s been discovered that those that occur circumstantially, without any effort on your part, are far more likely to quickly lose the ability to generate pleasure. For example, buying a new shirt can make you feel euphoric for a while, but this feeling soon goes away.

However, the kinds of changes that require some kind of effort or action or pose a constant challenge to you, usually make you happy for a longer time. For instance, starting to write a book or signing up for that course you always wanted to take.

Need for self-actualization

When you finally get what you wanted so much, you immediately develop new goals and desires. For example, you thought that getting a raise would make you happy, but now you wish you had more free time. You used to think that getting a partner was all you needed, but now that you have one, you want a new car, a new look, or a better social life.

This constant search for improvement is natural. As human beings, we set goals and objectives and work to achieve those aspirations. It’s the path to self-realization and it’s a basic need shared by all.

man thinking

How to deal with hedonic adaptation

The fact that this mechanism exists and is automatically activated in you doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything to minimize its effects. Here are some options:

  • Try to vary certain parameters so that stimulation isn’t always the same and you thus avoid habituation. If you have a partner, avoid falling into a routine by organizing different plans and activities. Or, make sure you have enriching and varied conversations that go beyond the mundane.
  • Try to set active goals and objectives such as learning a new skill, instead of passive ones, like acquiring material goods.
  • Practice gratitude. You often make the mistake of taking all that you have and all that you’ve achieved for granted. This deprives you of being able to feel pride and enjoyment in it each day. To avoid this, take a few moments to remember and count your blessings and the successes you’ve already achieved.
  • Don’t condition your happiness on the basis of great events. Learn to appreciate the little things and build your feelings of psychological well-being in your daily life. You don’t need to wait for that big change to feel good. Work on being happy today.

In short, keep in mind that hedonic adaptation takes you back to your usual level of happiness. Therefore, your best option is to raise that ‘fixed point’ to which you’ll return sooner or later.

Therefore, if you already felt fulfilled before getting your new house, new job, or new partner, when hedonic adaptation takes effect, you’ll still be in a good place.

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The Hedonic Treadmill and The Fixed Point of Happiness
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The Hedonic Treadmill and The Fixed Point of Happiness

The hedonic treadmill refers to the fact that, when you achieve something, your feelings of happiness often quickly fade. Read more here.

 



  • Brickman, P.Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36917927.
  • Sheldon, Kennon M., and Sonja Lyubomirsky. “The challenge of staying happier: Testing the hedonic adaptation prevention model.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38.5 (2012): 670-680.