The Hedonic Treadmill (or hedonic adaption) is the observed tendency for people to return to their baseline level of happiness soon after a significant life event or change in their circumstances.
People often fantasize about buying a dream holiday home, getting a new car or winning the lottery. However, when we get the new car or home we find that the boost to happiness is short lived and we back to our normal level of happiness before we notice it. Research indicates that even people who win the lottery only have a brief uplift in their happiness.
The psychologists Brickman and Campbell noted the concept of hedonic adaption in an essay in 1971. However, Michael Eysenck used the metaphor of the hedonic treadmill in the 1990s to describe how people are continually seeking to raise their level of happiness but never achieve what they expect when a life event occurs.
What is the happiness set point?
This is the genetically determined predisposition for happiness that accounts for around 50% of the difference between one person and another.
Why do we adapt?
Psychologists believe that adaption helps people in a number of ways including redirecting motivation, protecting against complacency, accepting circumstances that are out of our control and redirecting attention to more effective goals. Frederick and Lowenstein identified three types of processes in hedonic adaption.
Shifting adaption levels refers to when a person experiences a change in what is seen as a neutral stimulus, but is still sensitive to differences in stimulus. For example if Harry is given a pay rise he will briefly be happier and then he will become accustomed to the higher salary and will return to his base level of happiness. However, he will still be grateful when he gets a Christmas bonus.
Desentization reduces our overall sensitivity which decreases sensitivity to change. People who have been trapped in war zones become de-sensitised to the horrors of war and become less sensitive to serious injuries and violent deaths.
Sensitisation occurs due to frequent exposure to the stimulus so that the person can quickly recognise and enjoy the experience. For example a food connoisseur gets higher levels of satisfaction from selectively choosing fine food and wine.
Happiness is relative:
Probably the most well-known example of how happiness is relative was explored by Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman in 1987. The study, Lottery winners and accident victims, is happiness relative?, showed that even though there were extreme emotional responses of happiness and sadness for both sets of groups, the events did not result in long-term changes in their level of happiness.
Revisions to the hedonic treadmill:
Research led by Ed Diener has further improved our understanding of the hedonic treadmill and how the dynamics can change over time.
The set point is not neutral:
The original theory suggested that people return to a neutral level after a significant life event but their research indicates that the majority of people are happy most of the time (i.e. the set point is above neutral).
The set point is influenced by personality trait:
A number of studies have indicated that the set point is partially heritable and that certain personality traits have a predisposition to different levels of happiness. This may explain why optimistic people have a tendency to live longer as this helps make them happier.
People have multiple set points:
Initially it was suggested that a set point results in a single baseline level of happiness. Their research though found that because happiness is made up of a number of different factors these can be moving in different directions (e.g. declining) to your general level of well-being. This means that your general level of happiness can be more heavily influenced some factors more than others.
Well-being is not set for life:
International research studies have found that there are significantly different levels of well-being by country. Research by the Economist identified 9 factors including gross domestic product (GDP) per person, political stability, divorce rates and life expectancy as strong drivers of happiness levels.
This suggests that stability can influence levels of happiness in the long term. Further, a review of a number of studies by Lucan and Donnellan found evidence of “room for change” in people’s happiness levels over time. In one longitudinal study of Germans by Fujita and Diener around a quarter (24%) of participants experienced significant movement in their level of well-being.
People adapt at different rates:
The evidence suggests that people adapt at different rates and not to the same extent for identical events. One study showed that the least happy people reacted most strongly to marriage and the effect lasted longer compared to happier people. This may because events that are rare and create a substantial change in the lives of individuals may generate the biggest change in happiness levels.
The Hedonic Treadmill demonstrates that even rare and significant life events may not change our level of well-being in the long run. However, more recent research indicates that there is room for improvement and that long-term changes are more likely to be achieved by the least happy people in our society. This shows that it is possible to alter our level of happiness and that some of this is down to macro socio-economic factors such as political stability and GDP per person.
For conversion it is important not to exaggerate the impact a product or service will have a person’s life as it is likely that they will adapt sooner than they think. Manage expectations as otherwise this could damage repeat purchase rates and levels of customer satisfaction. However, for luxury brands advertising to existing users can be an effective way of reinforcing the benefits and status of the product or service to counteract the inevitable hedonic adaption.
For rare events, such as lottery wins or casino jackpots, it is a powerful strategy to present these as life changing and a source of increased happiness. It is of course an important motivator for these kinds of behaviour. People respond to vivid imagery and emotional stories for such rare events as it makes them seem more real and achievable. But as so few people will ever be lucky enough to experience these situations it is not necessary to factor in hedonic adaption.
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