Are we forever chasing rainbows?
Stop for a moment and think back to a time when you were excited and dreaming about something new. Perhaps you really wanted to find a romantic partner, get married, adopt a new cat, find a new job, get a promotion, have children, or buy that stunning house.
Can you remember how much you wanted that thing, how much you fantasized about it and longed for it? You might have spent days, even months or years craving to have that one thing.
But tell me … what happened after you got what you wanted? How long did the happiness actually last?
Certainly, the excitement and joy may have erupted like fireworks around you for a few hours, days or weeks. But this happiness was very temporary, wasn’t it? After a while, the spark of your initial happiness died down … or it wasn’t as intense as you imagined it to be.
Almost all of us have experienced this phenomenon which psychologists have called hedonistic adaptation. So why can’t we make this happiness last … and how can we feel these warm-and-fuzzy emotions more often?
What is Hedonistic Adaptation?
Hedonistic adaptation (also called the “Hedonistic Treadmill”) was a term first created in the 1970s by psychologists Brickman and Campbell. This term has come to refer to our tendency as human beings to chase happiness, only to return back to our original emotional baseline after getting what we want.
In essence, hedonistic adaptation is a phrase that refers to the pursuit of happiness. This happiness is much like running on a treadmill because no matter how much we get, we aren’t completely happy, and we always want more – thus, we keep running and running, seeking for the next happiness hit. Psychologist Michael Eysenck noticed this tendency and created the term “Hedonistic Treadmill.”
Common Examples of Hedonistic Adaptation
So, as we’ve just seen, hedonistic adaptation means that no matter what good happens to you, you’ll always return to your baseline level of happiness. To make this experience clearer, I’ll share a few examples:
- You’ve been trying to get a pay rise for ages and have dreamed about how much easier it would make your life. One day, you receive your pay rise. You feel happy and relieved. But after a week, this happiness fades, and you want an even HIGHER pay rise.
- You have saved money to go on a trip to Spain for over six months. Finally, you book your ticket and take your holiday. But after your trip ends, you quickly become restless, and save up all your money for the next holiday you plan on taking. And the cycle keeps repeating.
- You love dogs and have wanted to get one for ages. Finally, the time comes when you get to buy one. Yet after the initial euphoria of playing with your new puppy, your mind begins to fill with other desires, and the thrill starts to fade. You soon realize that getting a puppy hasn’t made you as happy as you thought it would.
- Since your early twenties, you have longed to find your soulmate. At last, you meet the person of your dreams, and for the next year, you’re filled with bliss and contentment. But as the years go by, you find yourself returning to that initial level of happiness you had. You begin to want more and start feeling bored.
One of the most famous and shocking studies done about hedonistic adaptation was conducted in the 1970s. Researchers examined the differences between people who had won the lottery (for a large amount of money) and victims of accidents, most notably quadriplegic and paraplegic victims. The study revealed that, in the long term, neither group appeared to be happier than the other. After the initial happiness felt by the winners and sadness felt by the victims, both returned back to their previous level of happiness. Now isn’t that just fascinating?
5 Signs You’re a Victim of Hedonistic Adaptation
Hedonistic adaptation happens to all of us. As most of us are raised in consumerist societies that are practically built on the “pursuit of happiness,” it’s no wonder that so many of us are addicted to this endless quest. But don’t despair. There are ways to jump off this hedonistic bandwagon and find authentic happiness. I’ll explore some practices that can help you out below.
First, we’ll go through some signs that you might be experiencing this form of addiction:
1. You obsessively think about that “one thing” which will “make you happy”
For example, you often find yourself researching, planning, daydreaming, and longing for an object, person, situation or experience. When you feel bored or unhappy, you find your thoughts dwelling excessively on this thing.
2. You find it hard to be happy without seeking for happiness
As spiritual teacher Jeff Foster once wrote, “True happiness is the absence of trying to be happy.” Yet most of us are conditioned to “try to find” happiness without realizing that this struggle is precisely what makes us unhappy.
3. You unintentionally take other people and things for granted
In the pursuit of “more,” you’ve accidentally forgotten to appreciate all of the wonderful people and amazing things in your life that you already have.
4. You feel chronically bored and restless
Boredom and restlessness trigger hedonistic seeking and are also the end result of this seeking. While both of these emotions are natural, if you constantly feel listless and like you need “something else” to fill the hole inside, you could be addicted to running on the hedonistic treadmill. After all, isn’t it thrilling to chase something that you believe will bring you happiness?
5. You keep idealizing the future
What fuels the hedonistic treadmill? Idealization. The whole reason why we start running on this hamster wheel in the first place is that we’re not happy with what we have right now, in the present moment. Right now just doesn’t seem “good enough” or thrilling enough. So we start to idealize the future and create stories and fantasies about what “could be.”
How to Experience Happiness (Without the Addiction)
It’s not how much we have, but how much we enjoy, that makes happiness. – Charles Spurgeon
Fortunately, there are ways of prolonging happiness. Researchers Sheldon and Lyubomirsky found in one of their studies that variety and appreciation help us to experience more long-lasting happiness. In other words, introducing a bit of variety into your life, and appreciating what you have, can help you feel happier for longer.
Here are some other suggestions that, in my experience, can help you access long-term happiness:
- Take time to enjoy little moments. We’re so often preoccupied with searching for the next latest-and-greatest obsession, that we forget the beauty right here around us. Stop throughout your day and look around. Find something to enjoy whether it be daylight streaming through the window, the adorable face of your child, or the beautiful garden you have. Gratitude is a powerful experience.
- Become aware of hedonistic adaptation when it plays out. What are you chasing at the moment which you believe will make you happy? One good way of avoiding the hedonistic treadmill is to pay attention to your thoughts and behavior right now. Catch yourself in the middle of this habit, and you will put an end to your addiction, so long as you keep being aware.
- Reflect on what you thought would bring you happiness in the past. Think back to everything in the past that you were infatuated with. If you like, make a list. For instance, you may have been obsessed with buying a new pair of shoes, getting a wardrobe makeover, purchasing a certain laptop, moving somewhere, renovating an area of the house … anything which you thought would make you happy. How long did that happiness last? And how long before you started chasing something else after you got what you wanted?
- What are you running away from? The hedonistic treadmill is all about running towards something … but have you ever considered that it’s also about running away from something as well? In order to experience more happiness, you need to face whatever it is you’re running away from. Common things people run away from involve marital problems, self-esteem/image issues, fear of abandonment, life stressors, boredom, and lack of meaning. Once you discover whatever it is you’re trying to bypass by chasing happiness, you can work to free yourself from that issue and therefore experience more long-lasting joy.
- Realize that anything outside of you cannot give you happiness. It seems like a well-worn cliche to say “happiness comes from within,” but there’s a reason why so many people say this: it is true. How can anything outside of you make you authentically happy if it can be taken away from you at any moment? The only source of happiness that cannot be taken away comes from within you. People and objects come and go, but the very essence or Soul of you does not.
- Practice the loving-kindness meditation. When we chase for future satisfaction what we’re really wanting is to feel good. However, according to professor of psychology Barbara Fredrickson in a study she conducted, practising the lovingkindness meditation actually helps to “outpace” the hedonic treadmill. The LKM comes from the Buddhist tradition and involves sending love to other people. (We have recorded a version of this meditation specifically for sensitive people here.)
- Be conscious of how your desires rule your life. As countless wise men and women have commented over the ages, the root of our suffering is the attachment to desire. The more we believe someone or something will make us happy, the more we attach to that thing. But in order to be free of suffering, we need to be fluid and open to life – even open to seeing that sometimes not getting what we want is ultimately best for us in the long term.
As humans, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out what will make us happy, forgetting that happiness can be found right here in the present moment. What we need to do is become aware of our conditioning, re-examine our beliefs surrounding happiness, and work to feel gratitude for what we have, right now.
Research has shown that despite facing circumstances such as winning the lottery or becoming paraplegic, we ultimately return back to our previous emotional baseline as human beings. This discovery is essential in our ability to understand the nature of life: that all is passing. Every emotion, every state, all of it changes. And in order to be happy, we need to flow with this natural state of change, finding peace and stability deep inside of ourselves.
What is your experience with hedonistic adaptation? Please share in the comments.