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What is the Hedonic Treadmill?

Have you heard of the term hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation? Simply put, the hedonic treadmill refers to the fact that humans have a tendency to adapt very quickly to new situations—both good and bad—and maintain a fairly stable emotional baseline (or, put another way, stable self-reported levels of happiness).

For some, the phenomenon of the hedonic treadmill is discouraging. They question why they would spend their time or attention trying to achieve things that could make them happier, if their baseline levels of happiness will just return to normal no matter what they do.

But it’s important to note that while hedonic adaptation means you will adapt quickly to changes like a nicer house or even winning the lottery, that doesn’t mean you can’t raise your happiness baseline in other ways. And it may sound unlikely to you, but things like regularly practicing gratitude, meditating, or volunteering are all examples of activities that can help you permanently increase your happiness (or “overall life satisfaction”).

Further, it’s important to remember that the hedonic treadmill works both ways. It doesn’t only mean that you bounce back quickly from positive changes—it’s also the phenomenon that helps people recover from negative life-changing experiences. Study participants who were left paralyzed from car accidents, for example, showed happiness levels that were already approaching their pre-accident baseline only a few months later. And it should be a big comfort to know that your brain is capable of that level of resilience in the face of major challenges.

If you’d like to hear more about the hedonic treadmill (and whether winning the lottery would actually make you happier), check out this video by Raj Raghunathan for Ted-Ed.

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