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Extensive global research on happiness exists. And understanding how happiness works is a key life leadership skill that has a huge impact on  your life and your family.

The Big Idea: Research shows that new circumstances or new purchases rarely bring the lasting happiness that people think they will bring. This psychological concept is known as “adaptation.” Armed with this knowledge, you can make new choices that are more likely to lead to greater happiness.

When I was a college student in southern California, a group of my friends wanted to go to the infamous Rodeo Drive for the day. We ate lunch and perused the luxurious boutique shops. One store I walked into had some very cool leather motorcycle style jackets.

In the very back of the store, I found a jacket I was sure would change my life. I think I was drawn to it because I had recently seen a photo of Justin Timberlake in People magazine wearing one just like it. (Yes, this is embarrassing now).

I called my parents to ask if I could put it on a credit card, and walked away elated a few minutes later with my new jacket. But the initial euphoria of the purchase quickly evaporated and I never wore it nearly as much as I thought I would.

Surely you have had experiences like this.

Human beings quickly adapt to both pleasure and pain

Psychologists have been so curious about this subject that they have been studying it since the 1970’s. But philosophers have observed this trend for much longer.

“A true saying it is—desire hath no rest—it is infinite in itself, a perpetual rack, a horse mill.” —Augustine of Hippo (400 AD)

This phenomenon is now referred to as the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation—which is the observation that humans generally return to the same level of happiness despite major positive or negative life changes. According to hedonic treadmill theory, as a person makes more money, their tastes and expectations rise, which results in no permanent gain in overall happiness.

They used the term treadmill to describe the notion that no matter how fast you run, you don’t really get anywhere. 

Humans quickly adapt to pleasure—and thus need more new experiences to get the same pleasurable effect. You might notice this sounds strikingly similar to the addiction cycle.

Psychologists such as Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, have greatly elaborated on the initial research into these areas.

Although some recent studies have suggested that certain events can permanently alter your overall life happiness—for better and worse—most experts generally agree that people are often incorrect about things they think will bring them happiness, and they also mispredict how long the effects will last.

In one famous study in 1978, researchers compared lottery winners to people who had suddenly become paraplegics. Surprisingly—after a period of time—the lottery winners were found to be no happier than people in general. And paraplegics—although slightly less happy than people in general—still judged themselves to be happy after they had adapted to their new life circumstances.

Here is a practical example of adaptation—Imagine you are outside in the blistering tropical heat and then walk into a wonderfully chilled air-conditioned room. Initially, you feel the ecstatic pleasure of being out of the heat, but after several hours you no longer feel euphoric to be inside, you simply feel comfortable. You quickly forgot just how miserable you were just a few hours ago.

In yet another interesting 1998 study of college professors published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants were asked to predict how they would feel after securing or being denied tenure. The study tracked their responses immediately after the decision, and then five and ten years later. Astonishingly, years later, there was no reported difference in overall well-being, whether the participants had been granted tenure or not. The implication of the study is that human beings are notoriously bad at predicting how they will feel after something happens.

This is both good news and bad news.

If you live in a war zone, adaptation might allow you to survive without being crushed by depression on a daily basis. But if we live in a world of plenty, the effect of new purchases or experiences can quickly wear off, leaving us with an endless and unfulfilling chase for pleasure that will never quite bring the lasting happiness we hoped it would.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz concludes, “When life is hard, adaptation enables us to avoid the full brunt of the hardship. But when life is good, adaptation puts us on a hedonic treadmill, robbing us of the full measure of satisfaction we expect from each positive experience.”

So what can you do?

Take action now

Here are some steps you can take to improve your own life happiness using this new knowledge:

  1. Learn to anticipate your own adaptation. Now that you know how adaptation works, you can predict how you might feel after a purchase or new experience. This might cause you not to make certain purchases or put too much weight on new life changes—either good or bad. Intentionally postpone upgrades unless you really think they will add value to your life. Go really slow with any large purchase, and make sure you and your partner are on the same page before you buy.
  2. Define how much is enough. This is phenomenal advice I’ve come across from many great thought leaders. Take some time to define this for yourself. What do you really need to be happy? Go back and read my previous posts in this series for inspiration. It’s a great way to begin to protect yourself from constantly upgrading your life and getting stuck on the hedonic treadmill of over accumulation. If you do happen to make more money, you may be less tempted to raise your lifestyle if you have already clearly defined how much is enough. And if you are married or in a relationship, it’s a great discussion to have by looking at how you both see your future.
  3. Intentionally pay attention to what you do have every day. One way to protect yourself from needing more stuff or changes in your life circumstances to be happy, is to make a daily ritual of intentionally focusing on the things that you are grateful for. I like to do this every morning with my wife and every evening when I put my kids to bed. Just create a very simple routine you can follow.


    Have a great weekend!


    *If you have enjoyed Parker’s blog, check out The Next Peak Podcast that Parker co-hosts. We interview successful leaders and discuss research-based principles that help people win in the workplace without compromising the things that matter most—relationships, a life of purpose, and health.


    Suggested Resources


  1. Barry Schwartz Paradox of Choice TED Talk
  2. Barry Schwartz—Paradox of Choice
  3. Hedonic Treadmill Theory
Dr. Parker Houston

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a licensed clinical psychologist and board-certified in organizational psychology. He is also certified in personal and executive coaching. Parker's personal mission is to share science-based principles of psychology and timeless spiritual practices, to help people improve the way they lead themselves, their families, and their organizations. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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