The Hedonic Treadmill

Edited and curated by @philhagspiel

We can get satisfaction but we can’t keep it. As our gains increase, our expectations and desires rise in tandem.


Mick Jagger sings that he “can’t get no satisfaction.” However, as humans we can indeed get satisfaction but we can’t keep it. The concept of the hedonic treadmill describes how we continuously strive for more (money, success, material things, emotional thrill, etc.) as we quickly adapt to what initially made us “happy” temporarily.

Emotionally, we respond to changes — a raise in salary, new clothes, a new relationship, the first days of vacation, and so on. However, we typically get used to new realities quickly and internalize the change as the new status quo, the new normal. This phenomenon is called hedonic adaptation — the robust tendency to revert back to our baselines of satisfaction or happiness, or a lack thereof.

This reverting-back to baseline can drive us to a perpetual pursuit of more. More things, more experiences, more status, more progress — the hedonic treadmill — just to feel good enough again.

Hedonic adaptation is an innate phenomenon and hardly anything we can change psychologically — and we also benefit from it (e.g. by adapting to negative things and being able to deal with it). However, if we learn to accept that getting more will not make us happier, we can re-focus our attention on what we actually want out of life and stop chasing that which won’t have a lasting effect.


A few further resources you might like if you find above idea interesting: