Happiness and the Hedonic Treadmill

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Imagine the excitement you had when you bought your first car. You were really happy of your new possession and you thought that it is going to add to your stack of happiness in life. But, soon you realized that the happiness fizzled out, and you are back to the same level of happiness. Rolf Dobelli describes it nicely in one of his articles:

A friend, a banking executive, whose enormous income was beginning to burn a hole in his pocket, decided to build himself a new home away from the city. His dream materialized into a villa with ten rooms, a swimming pool and an enviable view of lake and mountains. For the first few weeks, he beamed with delight. But, soon the cheerfulness disappeared, and six months later he was unhappier than ever. What happened? The happiness effect evaporates after a few months. The villa was no longer his dream. ‘I come from work, open the door and … nothing. I feel as indifferent about the villa as I did about my one room student apartment.’

Science calls this effect as the Hedonic Adaptation or the Hedonic Treadmill. Wikipedia defines it as the supposed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness, despite major positive or negative events or life changes.

It is based on two very well researched findings:

1. Human’s happiness levels don’t seem to increase beyond a threshold.

2. Human’s happiness is seen as a hedonic treadmill, as one must continually work to maintain a certain level of happiness.

Happiness has always been a difficult subject of research for psychologists and sociologists, partly because it is so difficult to measure. Humans have always been in pursuit of happiness and they wish to maintain an unending level of happiness in life. Some people, like the famous psychologist Victor Frankl say that happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue. He said that one must have a reason to be happy and that the very constant search of happiness actually thwarts happiness.

Though there is a lot of debate about how people look at happiness and whether money can buy happiness, there is no doubt that lack of money definitely buys you misery. If you have sufficient money, then life is easier, if not happier.


Part of the confusion of whether money can buy happiness or not probably lies in the way we view happiness. I think there are two types of happiness in our lives – hedonistic happiness and meaningful happiness – and money can definitely buy one of them.

Hedonistic happiness is the short term happiness that we get out of possession, shopping, and other self-indulgent activities. As we now know, hedonistic pleasure starts to fade out a few months later and people want a continuous feed of hedonistic pleasures to be happy. Hedonistic pleasures hold high amount of importance in the present, fades away in retrospection, and is relativistic in nature.

On the other hand, meaningful happiness is the kind of happiness that one derives from the meaning of their life in retrospect. For example, people like Nelson Mandela, despite struggling a lot in their lives, are one of the happiest in their old age because of the meaning their lives held. On the contrary, the all possessing rich celebrities lead miserable lives.

Yes, money can definitely buy happiness: hedonic happiness, but not meaningful happiness.

Recent research at Stanford and UCLA Berkeley shows that people’s happiness levels were positively correlated with whether they saw their lives as meaningful or not. Research shows that happiness without meaning is characterized by a relatively shallow and often self-oriented life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.

Probably that is why even with high amount of emotional stress caused by the misery they encounter on a daily basis, professionals like social workers still have many truly happy moments out of their work. For example, a social worker who struggles a lot to reunite a child with his or her parents derives a very high and long lasting amount of happiness out of that life event.


Most people experience meaningful happiness from their families and work life. I believe that is probably why humans reproduce, as it adds to their meaning in life. For most people, caring for their own children is a source of substantial amount of meaning.

It is observed that meaning brings in more stress, worry, and the emotional ups and downs. But, life is much worth if it is meaningful than just being happy.


  1. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-happy-life-may-not-be-a-meaningful-life/
  2. http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/january/meaningful-happy-life-010114.html
  3. http://faculty-gsb.stanford.edu/aaker/pages/documents/somekeydifferenceshappylifemeaningfullife_2012.pdf
  4. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/happy_life_different_from_meaningful_life
  5. http://aeon.co/magazine/world-views/do-you-want-a-meaningful-life-or-a-happy-one/
  6. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/06/04/daniel-kahneman-nobel-pri_n_601236.html
  7. http://aeon.co/magazine/world-views/do-you-want-a-meaningful-life-or-a-happy-one/