The Psychology Of Hedonic Adaptation & What You Should Know About It

By Sarah Fader |Updated March 31, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Dr. Natalie Feinblatt, PsyD

Hedonic adaptation, also referred to as the hedonic treadmill, is defined as "the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes." Positive Psychology Program notes the theory behind hedonic adaptation is that human beings possess a specific "set level of happiness," and no matter what happens to us, good or bad, we will always return to our original state or "set level of happiness."

A Thorough Examination Of Hedonic Adaptation

Hedonic adaptation maintains that over time, people become used to certain changes in their lives. The excitement or unhappiness that follows certain life events is believed to wear off over time, thus returning each person to their "default" emotional state. Behavioral Economics moreover states that due to each person's "baseline" (or set level) of happiness, less eventful experiences have more of an impact on one's emotional state, rather than extreme life occurrences, be they for better or for worse.

Dissecting The Process Of Hedonic Adaptation

Although hedonic adaptation may appear simplistic, it is more complex than some people might realize. The tendency contains three elements: shifting adaptation levels, desensitization, and sensitization. Each of these elements plays a key role in hedonic adaptation.

Shifting adaptation levels are when the individual at hand experiences a slight emotional high or low and then returns to their default "set level of happiness." However, whenever the person is exposed to the situation that prompted their emotional increase or decrease, they will still experience the same high or low.

The following example can help explain this phenomenon. Imagine a freelance writer who pours her heart and soul into her career and is always working to get new clients. When a new client hires the writer, she experiences a surge of joy and pleasure. This is an excellent step forward in her career, and her income will increase as a result.

Even though securing the new client brought her joy, over time, the high level of excitement wears off, and the writer reverts to her "baseline of happiness" as she completes the work assigned to her. However, when she secures yet another new client, the freelance writer experiences the same joyful sensation as before. This is the epitome of how shifting adaptation levels operate within hedonic adaptation.

Next comes desensitization. As the old saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing. When an individual becomes desensitized to a circumstance or situation, they no longer have the same outlook or reactions that another person might exhibit in the same situation. Habitual exposure to something often breeds desensitization, and more often than not, this state of being is frowned upon.

A person who frequently lives in filth or squalor may become desensitized to crime, bug infestations, or other unclean accommodations. Meanwhile, an individual used to cleanliness would likely be repulsed and appalled by such living conditions. In most cases, desensitization is rarely to be desired.

Last but not least of the three hedonic adaptation elements is sensitization. In many ways, this state of being is the polar opposite of desensitization. When an individual is sensitized to a certain situation, they have notable emotional increases or decreases. Sensitization, in layman's terms, means getting used to something we were not previously accustomed to. At its worst, sensitization can become conditioning, although in many cases, sensitization is not negative. Every living person has become sensitized to a certain situation or occurrence, whether they realize it or not.

For instance, think of a hypothetical person who is used to earning $50,000 on an annual basis. Now imagine that their income increases by 10 times that amount, and the same individual now earns $500,000 per year. Naturally, they will have to become used to (or sensitized) to such a considerable income upsurge. This person who is 10 times richer may now begin to look at investing, depositing more money into savings, and perhaps upgrading their lifestyle. Regardless of the decisions they make as a result of being 10 times wealthier, sensitization to such a considerable income increase is inevitable.

Controversy Surrounding Hedonic Adaptation

While many people remain convinced about the accuracy of hedonic adaptation, the tendency is not without controversy or skeptics. The skepticism is engendered by the claim that human beings will always return to their original "set level of happiness." However, according to Wikipedia, significant life events such as loss of employment, the end of a major relationship, etc., can alter what was once one's original "baseline" of contentment.

Additional research studies have also found that negative occurrences are often more impactful than positive ones. However, whether one returns to their default state of happiness often depends on the individual. Critics of hedonic adaptation view the tendency as a blatant generalization that fails to take potentially shifting factors into account.

For instance, a person living with mental illness or a clinical disorder may experience an alteration in their set level of happiness after consuming certain medication or going through various therapeutic forms of treatment. Ultimately, there are instances that both prove and disprove the theory of hedonic adaptation.

Psychological Reasonings Behind Hedonic Adaptation

Upon understanding hedonic adaptation and all that it entails, questions are bound to follow. Why don't people remain ecstatic after certain monumental occurrences? What prompts people to return to the theorized "baseline" state of happiness? What are the psychological origins of hedonic adaptation?

The first explanation for the reasoning behind hedonic adaptation states that people simply become adapted to whatever changes are causing their burst of excitement or increase in happiness. Over time, the initial ecstasy over the "newness" of the great thing that has occurred wears off, hence the return to one's "set the level of happiness." This is also a form of sensitization, one of the elements above of hedonic adaptation.

In many cases, someone who undergoes a positive experience with desirable offshoots may, in turn, become used to those circumstances. This is an ironically more positive form of desensitization. As individuals become accustomed to a better quality of life or nicer material things (be it a new house, new car, etc.), their levels of expectation shift, and it becomes their new normal. The same person who went from earning $50,000 to now earning $500,000 may now wish to earn $1,000,000. When a person "upgrades" in one form or another, their standards "shift upward," and they feel compelled to strive for better. Psychologically, the desensitization to a higher quality of life becomes the new normal, hence the return to one's default emotional state.

Combating Hedonic Adaptation

While sensitization and desensitization are key elements of hedonic adaptation, this process can be minimized, if not terminated altogether. "Variety" or the ability to "switch things up" can work wonders as people work to maintain and increase the innate excitement and joy that accompanies positive life experiences, such as a new marriage, a promotion at work, or an increase in economic capital.

Unexciting, uneventful everyday routines can be seen as happiness killers that provide the ultimate breeding ground for hedonic adaptation. Switching things up, be it going to a new restaurant or traveling to a new city, can help individuals surge levels of happiness as opposed to returning to their original "baseline" emotional state.

Displaying a sense of gratitude and appreciation for the blessings in one's life can also combat hedonic adaptation. Many people are constantly searching for new things to bring them joy, rather than giving thanks for what is already before them. Sometimes, remembering how fortunate one is and being appreciative of such can preserve happiness. The decision to take things for granted is a common trap that many people fall into, and unfortunately, it often leads to hedonic adaptation.

A Final Word

Hedonic adaptation is an intriguing process that frequently manifests itself. While the ability to return to a default emotional state following a negative experience can be beneficial, doing so after a positive event can feel like somewhat of an emotional letdown. Thankfully, the strategies above can help people as they work to maintain and increase their levels of happiness.

While pursuing variety in life and being thankful for one's current opportunities and circumstances can breed and preserve happiness, sometimes sitting down and talking to someone can make a world of difference as well. Each of us is in one stage of life or another, and, at times, we all need someone to talk with. Ultimately, the choice is yours, but if you ever feel the inclination to reach out to a therapist, they can help.

Online therapy is a convenient way to connect with a counselor or mental health provider. Research shows that online counseling is as effective as in-person sessions and can help individuals cope with anxiety and depression. One such study from Palo Alto University found that approximately 73% of study participants saw improved symptoms after six weeks of video-based cognitive behavior therapy. According to the research, and the data suggests a “decelerated decrease in symptoms over time.”

If speaking with a certified therapist from the convenience of your home is appealing, consider BetterHelp. Connecting with a counselor is so convenient and doesn’t require missing work or sitting in traffic. Another benefit of online therapy is that it is typically more affordable because everything is handled virtually. Consider these reviews of BetterHelp counselors helping people lead happier lives.

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