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Psychologists say that when human beings experience something good — a long-awaited promotion, a new car, a winning lottery ticket, for instance — the surge of happiness that’s experienced is likely to return to a steady personal baseline over time.

It’s a phenomenon known as the “hedonic treadmill,” sometimes also referred to as hedonic adaptation.

Interestingly, the same principle applies to difficult events. Most of the time, when people experience a loss or setback, the feelings that accompany the negative event lessen in severity over time.

People eventually recover — and though life may be altered, emotions usually return to that individual’s baseline state in time.

What’s behind this adaptation? And what does science have to say about the human tendency to maintain a relatively steady state of happiness despite life’s peaks and valleys?

Hedonic adaptation is part of the human ability to continuously adjust to ever-changing circumstances. Euphoria dissipates. Rage calms. Even the terrible force of grief eventually recedes.

That is to say, though the day-to-day effects of major events continue, our emotions regain a kind of equilibrium. We step back onto the hedonic treadmill in pursuit of other goals, hopes, and desires.

Psychologists think this capability may be related to our survival. Moving past events into an emotional “background” may enable us to deal with the events we face today.

The hedonic treadmill is based on the idea that people generally return to a level of happiness that’s consistent with their personality and genetics.

Some psychologists say as much as 50 percent of your capacity for happiness is inherited. But some experts would add a note of caution.

For one thing, the definition of “happiness” is notoriously hazy, as is the definition of well-being, making it hard to compare studies — and human beings, for that matter.

Many studies use surveys, interviews, and subjective scales to account for personal happiness. These measures are often open to individual interpretations.

Researchers also point out that some life experiences do, in fact, tend to promote lifelong shifts in emotional states.

Broadly speaking, people who marry are likely to be happier over time than those who don’t. People who divorce or are widowed are likely to be less happy for a long time afterward (again, generally speaking).

The pleasure or loss of pleasure can cause a long-term (possibly even permanent) change in personal happiness.

So, what makes an event more likely to lead to long-term happiness instead of effervescent pleasure?

Sensory experiences — those that make you happy because they involve good physical sensations — and intensely emotional experiences both tend to be less durable than other satisfactions.

Novelty also wears off fairly quickly, so if you’ve moved to a new city or taken a new job, you may feel an increase in happiness because you’re experiencing something new.

But, as you grow accustomed to your new situation, the feelings may subside somewhat.

Another factor that can influence the duration of your feelings has to do with whether you compare yourself to others in seeking happiness.

Studies show that when you pursue something in part because other people have it, the happiness you experience wears off swiftly.

If you’ve attained something that you value for its own sake, whether or not anyone else wants it, your satisfaction may be more likely to persist.

Your own sentimentality can even prolong feelings of happiness. In a 2015 analysis, researchers compared the results of seven studies. They found that when people associate sentimental value with an event, the happiness they get from it remains more constant over time.

That may be because people don’t think of an occurrence on its own, but make a sentimental association with it.

For instance, when admiring the pot holder your child knitted for you at camp many years ago, the upswell of delight is less about the beauty of the pot holder than it is about the child who crafted it.

One of the many useful ways to categorize different kinds of happiness is to distinguish between these two sources of pleasure: hedonism and eudaimonia.


Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure. The term refers to the immediate happiness we experience when we do something we like or avoid doing something we don’t like.

Food and sex are two frequently discussed categories of hedonic pleasure. But any activity might qualify, from reading to playing video games. Think of hedonism as enjoyment.


Eudaimonia, another aspect of happiness, is the fulfillment we experience from pursuing meaningful activities.

When we do things to help other people, or when we do something to grow personally or to build a sense of purpose in life, the happiness we experience is less susceptible to the hedonic treadmill.

Researchers have found that eudaimonic happiness takes longer to lessen than hedonic happiness. However, both hedonic and eudaimonic happiness help you build resilience — the ability to recover from setbacks and losses.

If you’ve experienced a life event that has left you reeling from sorrow or grief, a period of mourning is natural and healthy.

When you’re ready, finding ways to experience both personal pleasure and purpose can help bring you closer to a new sense of happiness — even if it doesn’t feel exactly the same as the happiness you experienced before a major loss.

You can’t always predict the major events that will shape your life. Nor can you change the genetic factors that influence your basic happiness set point.

But the good news is you can increase your capacity for long-term happiness.

Researchers think you may be able to choose behaviors and activities that can influence as much as 40 percent of your sense of well-being.

Here are some ways to reduce the effects of the hedonic treadmill.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is one of several types of meditation known to help increase feelings of well-being and positivity.

Mindfulness can quiet your mind through intentional breathing. It can ground you in the present moment by helping you pay careful attention to what’s happening around you and in your body.

Researchers have found that among people with chronic pain, mindfulness increased the capacity for hedonic happiness.

Build a better you

Your sense of deep well-being is connected to your personal development. According to research, you may be able to create a more lasting sense of satisfaction by:

  • intentionally pursuing your personal goals
  • envisioning a positive future for yourself
  • immersing yourself in activities that put you in a state of flow, like sports, music, or wherever your abilities flourish

Express gratitude

Human beings are unique in their ability to experience pleasure from remembering past happiness.

Researchers have found that gratitude — intentionally expressing thanks for a positive experience — is linked to an enlarged capacity for happiness.

It’s also possible to slow down hedonic adaptation by continuing to reflect on and appreciate the events and circumstances that changed your life.

Invest in relationships

Studies from all over the world, spanning several decades, point to relationships as a key to long-term happiness.

Certainly, we all vary in terms of the number of people in our trusted circle, or the amount of time we want to spend in social engagement.

But, according to research, the happiest people are those who have built supportive relationships, and who live in cultures where there are well-developed social resources to rely on.

Engage in acts of selfless service to others

Studies show that engaging in pro-social acts of service may help increase your capacity for long-term happiness.

Researchers have confirmed that happiness is more likely to fluctuate if it comes from self-centered pursuits, as opposed to the pleasure that comes from doing something selfless.

Researchers call this inner state “authentic, durable happiness,” saying it leads to “contentment and inner peace.”

Finally, buy the ice cream

Your brain is marvelously complex. While on paper it’s easy to separate hedonic pleasures from higher satisfactions, in your brain the two interact.

Neuroanatomy researchers are still discovering the interplay between hedonic and eudaimonic happiness in the brain’s pleasure centers. In fact, the inability to enjoy simple, hedonic pleasures is one of the markers of a number of serious mental health conditions.

Just know that although hedonic pleasures may be fleeting, they’re an important part of your overall well-being.

So roll the windows down and turn the radio up, and by all means enjoy a reasonable scoop of chocolate chip ice cream.

Simple indulgences are, after all, a key ingredient to your emotional and mental well-being.

The hedonic treadmill is a metaphor for the human tendency to pursue one pleasure after another. That’s because the surge of happiness that’s felt after a positive event is likely to return to a steady personal baseline over time.

In the same way, the negative feelings you experience after a traumatic event also tend to soften with time.

However, there’s good evidence to show that some kinds of happiness are more durable than others. Pleasure that comes from selfless acts, for example, tends to outlast physical pleasures.

Research also shows that you may be able to increase your long-term sense of well-being through mindfulness, personal growth, gratitude, and investing in relationships. Learning to savor simple pleasures as they happen may also help you hang onto happiness a little longer.