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The term hedonic treadmill was first coined in 1971 by Brickman and Campbell in the article “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.” It refers to the fact that even though external forces are constantly changing our lives and our life goals, happiness is a relatively constant state. The idea of relative levels of happiness dates back to the time of Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in ancient Greece. Situations may get better or worse, but we will usually report about the same levels of happiness or sadness. Humans are apt to adjust to external events on their life and, therefore, their needs will adapt as life changes. Demographic information only appears to account for a 20% variance of happiness. Although one might expect the income, attractiveness, and health conditions of the subject to affect overall well-being, studies show that their overall combined total correlation is not ultimately significant.
Evidence: Winners and Paraplegics
Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978) used the idea of the hedonic treadmill to explain how people with a wide variety of resources or lack of resources can maintain similar levels of happiness. They showed that people readily adapt to their fortunes or misfortunes. Lottery winners, for example, may experience an initial emotional high, but report about the same level of happiness they previously held after time passed. Similarly, paraplegics reported below average levels of happiness for about two months on average after the accident but eventually returned to the set point they previously held.
In their a two part study, they compared past, present, and predicted future levels of happiness of lottery winners, control subjects who held similar demographic information to the lottery winners, and paraplegics. The initial study demonstrated that levels of happiness and overall well-being did not vary to a significant degree over the three groups. The second study was implemented to dispel the possibility that the differences found in the initial experiment were due to differences between lottery ticket purchasers and non-purchasers or because the idea of winning the lottery was more salient during the interview to winners rather than non-winners. Researchers found that a majority of non-winners were purchasers of lottery tickets anyways, a fact that made them comparable subjects to the winners.
This phenomenon can be explained through the ideas of contrast and habituation (Brickman 1978). For instance, winning the lottery is an extremely positive event that will shift the adaptation level upwards, therefore making many ordinary events less satisfying. While receiving a large sum of money will present a variety of new pleasures, it may also diminish the effect of previously treasured pleasures. The idea of habituation also suggests that the excitement of winning the lottery will eventually wear off. The winner will become accustomed to this new lifestyle. Lottery winners have not appeared to hold a significantly higher level of happiness in past, present, or presumed future levels than control subjects.
These principles were also applied to the cases of paraplegics. Typically, mundane activities of pleasure are now seen as more valuable because of the condition accident victims have found themselves in. They also become habituated to their unfortunate condition and the initial, negative emotions associated with the activity break down as time passes.
Overall, the study supports the idea that happiness is relative and promotes adaptation theory. Both contrast and habituation function to stabilize happiness levels for those experiencing extremely positive or negative events.
Distinguishing Hedonia and Eudaimonia
Waterman (2007) theorizes that the hedonic treadmill only functions for a certain level of happiness, in this case hedonia. With hedonia, happiness is the goal sought and the greater extent of pleasured experienced by the person the better. There is no consideration given to the source or depth of happiness a person is encountering. Hedonia involves feeling excited, relaxed, and content, losing track of time, and forgetting personal problems.
Eudaimonia, by contrast, might not produce similar treadmill effects (Waterman 2007). Eudaimonia is the positive subjective state that is the product of the pursuit of self-realization. It focuses on the extent to which certain activities are associated with a person developing their potentials, with investing a great deal of effort, with having clear goals, and with feeling challenged in the pursuit of a goal. Challenge of an activity or goal may become diminished and cause the subject to become bored, but the subject would just have to increase the level of the challenge before them.
Overall, it is necessary to note that different levels and means and happiness will persist for varying amounts of time, suggesting that eudemonic happiness might have a more meaningful and lasting impact on a person than hedonic pleasure.
Diener and colleagues (2006) have stated that while the concept of the hedonic treadmill does have some merit, it is in need of five crucial revisions. First, Brickman’s (1978) original theory stated that people tend to have a more or less neutral baseline point that they always return to. Diener et al. (2006) argues that studies have actually shown that people are usually happy most of the time, suggesting that a person’s baseline tends to be more positive than negative. Second, it is vital to recognize that there is variability in set points that people possess. Well-being is a somewhat heritable, and personality factors are strong correlates of well-being. Third, it is essential that happiness is not regarded as a singular concept. It is composed of multiple well-being variables. Different forms of well being, including negative and positive affect, move in varying directions over the course of life. There may be multiple set points, not a single, stable, lifelong baseline. Fourth, Brickman was wrong to assume that changes in life circumstances can never produce lasting changes in happiness levels. Long term levels of happiness have been shown to change for some individuals over the course of years. Diener suggests that well-being set points can change under some conditions. Finally, the size and direction of a change in life satisfaction may vary for different people. An extremely positive event may ultimately hold greater meaning for a person in a horrible life situation than someone with abundant resources at hand.
Others suggest that meditation known as Loving-Kindness Meditation (LKM) can solve the shortcomings of the hedonic treadmill, which has been referred to as “one of the most deflating concepts facing positive psychology (Fredrickson, et al. 2008).” LKM involves a person contemplating people and things that they already feel affectionate for and spreading those emotions to themselves and to a variety of other components in their life through careful concentration and focus. Proponents of this belief state that adaptation is not necessarily inevitable and that more recent research has actually shown that adaptation is far more common to occur with negative affect than positive affect. LKM, when practiced an hour a week, can enhance the positive emotions experienced in a wide variety of life situations. The effects of LKM are said to remain continuously and long after a theory like the hedonic treadmill would expect them to.
Baumeister, R.F. & Bushman, B.J. Social Psychology & Human Nature. 2008 p. 192. California: Thomson Higher Education.
Brickman, P., Coates, D., Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1978, Vol. 36, No. 8, p. 917-927
Diener, E., Lucas, R.E., Scollon, C. N. (2006) “Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill.” American Psychologist, May-June 2006, Vol. 61, No. 4. , p. 305-314
Fredrickson, B.L., Coffey, K.A., Cohn, M.A., Finkel, S.M., Pek, K.A. (2008). “Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources.” Journal of Personality and Psychology, Vol. 95. No. 5, 1045-1062
Waterman, A. (2007). “On the Importance of Distinguishing Hedonia and Eudaimonia When Contemplating the Hedonic Treadmill.” American Psychologist, September 2007, Vol. 62, No. 6, 612-613.