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

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated February 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Humans usually have an incredible capacity to adapt to changing situations. Over time and study, researchers often notice a tendency to return to an emotional baseline, or set point, after both positive and adverse events. This tendency can be referred to as the hedonic adaptation or hedonic treadmill. However, it can be possible to change your emotional baseline through effective methods and consistent effort. A licensed therapist can help you understand your set point and how you may change it to experience more happiness in life.

What is hedonic adaptation?

According to researchers, hedonic adaptation can be defined as a phenomenon seen in human behavior that describes a set point or emotional baseline for subjective well-being. Essentially, this means that you typically adjust to changes in your life, so the excitement or unhappiness you may feel after positive or negative life events usually fades or wears off over time, returning you to your default level of happiness.

The theory was first proposed in the late 1940s and has been through multiple revisions over the years. The current consensus among the mental health community is that most people have a stable emotional baseline. Still, it can be possible to exert substantial and long-lasting changes, either due to life events or professional assistance.

“It is now widely accepted that while most people experience stable levels of happiness and well-being, significant and lasting changes can, and do, occur.” — Maike Luhmann and Sabrina Intelisano

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Do people have a set level of happiness?

Most people have a hedonic adaptation set point as their emotional baseline. The ability to consistently view the phenomenon in people around the world is likely one of the reasons the theory has persisted for so long and been fine-tuned so well. Hedonic adaptation can help us understand human nature. We often have the ability to adapt to changes, and our brains are generally wired to help us do so. By nature, certain reactive feelings can fade over time. For example, you can calm yourself from a rage, just as the euphoria from a happy event normally dissipates over time. 

Understanding the hedonic treadmill

Many medical professionals refer to hedonic adaptation as the hedonic treadmill because you tend to end up back where you started, returning to your baseline set point. Even when you experience a difficult loss or setback, the severity of your feelings often lessens over time. For example, most people feel intense grief after losing a loved one. However, you can adapt to its effects with time and effort, process your grief, and eventually return to your (potentially altered) emotional baseline. Your experience may change you, but you may find a new normal and feel happiness again. 

Phases of hedonic adaptation

Shifting adaptation levels

This generally refers to experiencing a slight emotional high or low and returning to your happiness set point. However, subsequent exposures to the same situation can offer the same emotional boost or dip. For example, many baseball players feel a rush of elation every time they hit a home run, though their happiness may return to a baseline level between events.  

Desensitization

Desensitization can occur when you have “too much of a good thing”. Similar to how people can develop a tolerance after repeated substance use, you can create an emotional tolerance to specific situations and circumstances. Habitual exposure can result in desensitization, often leading you to seek higher emotional highs to achieve previous emotional states or allowing you to tolerate unpleasant circumstances until you reach new emotional lows. Emotional desensitization is typically seen as an adverse condition. Habituation psychology is generally concerned with the decrease in response to a stimulus, while desensitization normally focuses on the decrease in sensitivity to a stimulus.

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Sensitization

At the opposite end of the spectrum, sensitization can happen when you go through the process of adapting to something new. For example, if you worked for years but barely made enough to survive, starting a new job at ten times the pay would likely evoke elation as you experience being able to pay all the bills and build up savings. However, over time, you may become sensitized to the income increase. Your time at a lower income can help you maintain feelings of gratitude and happiness about the higher level of stability, potentially affecting your emotional baseline over time as the stressors of low income are removed.  

Can you change your happiness baseline?

According to a 2011 study, it can be possible to change your emotional baseline, but increasing happiness usually requires consistent effort and an effective method. Researchers report that as much as 50% of your happiness set point may be due to genetic inheritance. At the same time, the remaining half can fluctuate due to individual differences in circumstances, well-being, and positive cognitive, goal-based, and behavioral activities. Researchers concluded that happiness interventions are usually more than placebos. Still, they tend to be more effective and long-lasting when you are well-informed about the intervention, agree with the method, and actively commit to a meaningful change. 

Ways to limit the effects of hedonic adaptation

  • Practice a mindful lifestyle
  • Focus on personal development
  • Actively express gratitude
  • Invest in your personal relationships
  • Act selflessly to help others
  • Enjoy the little things
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Opposition to hedonic adaptation

While they generally agreed with some points, the authors of a 2006 study suggested five revisions to the hedonic adaptation theory of well-being, which may help the model apply to a broader range of people and more accurately describe how humans experience happiness. 

Suggested Revisions To The Original Hedonic Adaptation Model

  • Non-Neutral Set Points—People usually tend toward happiness, not neutrality, so inaccurate starting points may skew the information.
  • Individual Set Points—Emotional baselines can vary drastically from person to person and can be strongly influenced by personality type and temperament.
  • Multiple Set Points—Happiness may not be reduced to a single point and may instead be multiple points influenced by numerous variables related to well-being. 
  • Happiness Can Change—With consistent effort and professional guidance, it can be possible to change happiness levels and manage the symptoms of mental health conditions.  
  • Individual Differences In Adaptation—Everyone may not adapt to intense emotional experiences similarly.  

Despite the wealth of evidence for the hedonic adaptation model, some medical professionals hesitate to set too much stock by it due to evidence that some life events, like divorce, loss of a loved one, marriage, severe illness, or disability, can have a substantial and long-lasting impact on happiness, according to researcher Richard Easterlin.

Some events may be more susceptible to hedonic adaptation

Sensory experiences, which usually involve pleasant physical sensations and intensely emotional events, tend to have a less persistent effect on your emotional baseline. These transient emotional events are often called pleasures, and their impact, while strong, can be fleeting. However, studies show that your sentimental attachment to certain circumstances can prolong the enjoyment you gain from them. 

Categories of pleasure

One of the methods used to distinguish between different types of happiness can be categorizing the sources of pleasures and gratifications.

Hedonism (pleasures)

Hedonism is often defined as the pursuit of pleasure and can refer to the immediate happiness you experience when you do something you enjoy or avoid something you don’t like. It can be helpful to consider the hedonism category of happiness as enjoyment. Pleasures often have a short-lived effect on your happiness level.

Eudaimonia (gratifications)

The other category of happiness is usually called eudaimonia, which can refer to the fulfillment you may experience when pursuing meaningful activities. This can involve helping other people, pursuing personal development, and believing that your life has a purpose. Gratifications can often have a long-lasting impact on your overall happiness. 

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How therapy can help you learn to be happier

If you are concerned about your emotional set point or your ability to manage your feelings and reactions, it may be helpful to speak with a licensed therapist online through a virtual therapy platform, where flexible appointment formats can make it easy to fit treatment into your busy schedule. 

The American Psychological Association (APA) published recent research suggesting that online therapy can be an affordable, effective alternative to in-person treatments. Additional studies reported that the efficacy of online therapy and face-to-face therapy is usually the same, potentially making both options valid for those seeking professional help with their mental health.

Takeaway

Hedonic adaptation generally states that humans return to a baseline level of happiness after experiencing positive and negative life events. It may be possible to adjust your emotional baseline by putting in consistent effort and using effective methods to increase your general level of happiness. It can be helpful to work with a licensed mental health professional to learn more and discover strategies for experiencing increased happiness levels.
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