Hedonic Treadmill

Hedonic TreadmillIt is widely assumed that material circumstances strongly affect human happiness. However, as the example of the “poor little rich girl” suggests, objective outcomes and happiness are not perfectly correlated. Indeed, many studies suggest that they are hardly correlated at all. For example, winners of lotteries do not report themselves as being much happier than other people, and those who were paralyzed in an accident do not report themselves as being much less happy. Similarly, as nations get wealthier, the reported well-being of its citizens does not increase.

The lack of evidence for a relation between objective circumstances and reported well-being has given rise to the concept of a hedonic treadmill, on which humans’ happiness remains stationary, despite efforts or interventions to advance it. The metaphor is also interpreted to mean that humans’ happiness will decline if their material circumstances remain constant.

The hedonic treadmill metaphor draws support from adaptation in other domains. Pleasant smells usually become less intense (and less pleasurable) with continued exposure, and a 70° Fahrenheit room that initially feels delightful when one comes in from the cold ceases to confer pleasure after one has been inside for a while.

Despite the appeal of these analogies, the suitability of the treadmill metaphor remains in question. The conclusion that material circumstances have no effect on welfare seems implausible and objectionable, because it implies that economic inequality is irrelevant, that the poor would be no better off if they were rich.

The principal critique of the research cited on behalf of the hedonic treadmill is that happiness measures rely on subjective self-reports whose interpretation is unclear. When asked “How happy are you on a scale from 0 to 100?” respondents must judge for themselves what the end points of the scale represent. Someone who has lived a tough life might interpret 0 as unrelenting torture and 100 as pleasant comfort, whereas someone who has lived an easy life might interpret 0 as the absence of joy and 100 as heavenly bliss. If these two people each declared their happiness level to be a 60 (out of 100), it would obviously be wrong to conclude that the two people really are equally happy, since one person has adopted a higher standard for the internal feeling that warrants that rating.

Thus, data showing that subjective ratings of happiness remain constant despite objectively improving circumstances could instead be explained by a satisfaction treadmill, whereby improving circumstances lead individuals to adopt successively higher aspirations for the amount of enjoyment they regard as acceptable. To illustrate, consider someone who moves from an apartment with a view of a parking lot to one with a view of the ocean shoreline. According to the hedonic treadmill hypothesis, the pleasure conferred by the better view diminishes over time, until gazing upon waves crashing into the shoreline brings no more pleasure than formerly derived from gazing upon cars parked on asphalt. By contrast, according to the satisfaction treadmill, the ocean view continues to confer more pleasure, which satisfaction or happiness ratings fail to reflect, because the person has come to adopt higher standards for what constitutes a “great” view or a “great” life (a label they now reserve for living in a home with unobstructed and panoramic ocean views on a more scenic part of the coast).

Though the hedonic treadmill and satisfaction treadmill are competing metaphors, they are not mutually exclusive, and each might contribute to the finding that groups in different circumstances report more similar levels of happiness than one would expect. Resolving the relative role of each is a central challenge for happiness researchers. Researchers are relying increasingly on more objective indicators of happiness, including biological indicators of stress and measures of activation in the areas of the brain that are associated with feelings of pleasure and pain. Some have also advocated moment-based measures, which attempt to reconstruct someone’s well-being from his or her moment-to-moment reports of mood. Moment-based measures are simpler and may be less susceptible to scale norming. Respondents need only report how they currently feel when engaged in some particular activity, rather than being required to simultaneously recall and evaluate every aspect of their life.


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  3. Kahneman, D. (2000). Experienced utility and objective happiness: A moment-based approach. In D. Kahneman & A. Tversky (Eds.), Choices, values, and frames (pp. 673-692). New York: Cambridge University Press.