The Hedonic Treadmill and The Fixed Point of Happiness

Sometimes, when you achieve something you want, your feelings of happiness and enjoyment are short-lived. In fact, it doesn't take long for you to feel a kind of emptiness and dissatisfaction. We call this phenomenon hedonic adaptation.
The Hedonic Treadmill and The Fixed Point of Happiness
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

“I’ll be happy when I get that job”. “Everything will be better when I have my new house/ promotion/ better car/ partner who really loves me…”. It seems that it’s getting harder and harder for us to feel good and have satisfying lives. This is what the concept of the hedonic treadmill (hedonic adaptation), also called the hamster wheel theory, suggests.

Sometimes, you experience the strange sensation of being on a treadmill that goes nowhere. You go around and around on a wheel that doesn’t allow you to move forward or achieve what you want. In fact, the only thing you achieve are feelings of tiredness and frustration.

You spend your life fantasizing about things you want to achieve. However, often, when you achieve them, your pleasure is only fleeting and soon comes to an end. This happens to everyone at some point. You feel adamant that when you reach certain goals you’ll feel completely fulfilled. However, those feelings of success and fulfillment vanish in a short time and you feel empty.

“Habit accustoms us to everything. What we see too much, we no longer imagine.”

-Jean-Jacques Rousseau-

Sad woman looking in the mirror

The hedonic treadmill: adaptation

The hedonic treadmill theory (hedonic adaptation) claims that you usually adapt extremely quickly to your achievements. Hence, your feelings of happiness quickly fade and you return to your previous level. The one in which you keep dreaming of achieving new goals, or you need more reinforcements to experience another peak of euphoria or intense well-being.

Are you hopelessly dissatisfied? Maybe. Is there something pathological or problematic about it? Absolutely. Because the truth is that this perception is something that defines you as a human being. It explains, among other things, why, although you’re earning increasingly more money you still feel it’s not enough. Also, why when something happens that you were looking forward to, you don’t always feel completely satisfied with it.

In 1999, the psychologist and Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman, reflected on this subject in a book entitled Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. One thing that he made evident in this research was the impact that this psychological dimension has on absolutely all areas of our lives.

You have a ‘fixed’ point of happiness

Psychology claims that it isn’t what happens or doesn’t happen to you that determines your happiness 100 percent. In fact, everyone interprets their reality in their own way and we all have our own attitudes and resources for dealing with life’s events.

Psychologist, Sonja Lyubomirsky elaborates on this particular subject. She claims that every person has a fixed point of happiness that has a genetic origin. In her book, The How of Happiness, she explains how this fixed point of well-being is related to hedonic adaptation.

For example, when you set out to do something and you achieve it, you soon adapt to that achievement and, over the weeks, your feelings of euphoria and pleasure diminish. Having reached the climax of the sense of accomplishment, you return (descend) to your previous ‘fixed point of happiness’.

For some people, this point will be at an optimal level and they’ll quickly return to a healthy state. However, there are many who gravitate to a base point that borders on unhappiness and helplessness. This would explain why, after achieving something and adapting, the next thing these people experience is a deeper emotional slump.

The hedonic treadmill theory states that, after something positive happens to you, your happiness levels will return (drop) to their initial values.

Negative hedonic adaptation, when you get used to adverse events

You know that it’s usual to experience a certain feeling of emptiness after getting what you wanted so much. You adapt. That which motivated you has lost its shine and you place your perspectives on new objectives. In essence, you continue to run on your treadmill or hamster wheel.

It’s important to keep in mind that hedonic adaptation also appears in negative or adverse experiences. To understand it better, here’s an example.

Say you’ve spent your entire life counting on the support of your best friend. Suddenly, one day, for work reasons, you have to go to another country. Therefore, you have to stop counting on your daily meetings with your friends and their constant company.

As expected, you feel down. That’s because it’s hard for you to imagine life without the support of your friend and their presence in your daily life. However, after a few weeks, you end up adapting to the new situation. In this case, you experienced a decrease in your fixed point of happiness, until it gradually returned to its initial level.

woman in the field overcoming our hedonic adaptation

Can you be happier than you already are?

If you have a fixed point of happiness that you return to after something very good happens to you, you might wonder if you can raise your sense of happiness and make it stable.

As a matter of fact, your happiness is always fluctuating. You have good and bad times. If you have a good base point of well-being and resilience orchestrated by your genetics, this will be beneficial to you.

The objective should be to enhance and develop better psychological resources in those who have a low and very fragile ‘fixed point of happiness’.

Martin Seligman, along with other experts in the field of positive psychology and happiness, stresses that this isn’t only possible, it’s necessary. These experts claim that we can all empower ourselves with valuable strategies to deal with everyday problems and invest in our self-esteem, our well-being, and our quality of life. Indeed, they state that leveling up the fixed point of happiness is perfectly possible.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology36(8), 917–927.
  • Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist61(4), 305–314.
  • Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Lucas, R.E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125(2), 276-302.
  • Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. New York, NY: Penguin.
  • Lyubomirsky, S. & Tucker, K., L., (1998). Implications of individual differences in subjective happiness for perceiving, interpreting, and thinking about life events. Motivation and Emotion, 22(2), 155-183.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.