Pinning Down the Fleeting Nature of Happiness

by Jess Whittlestone
Originally Published: 

A few months ago, I moved back to Oxford, the town which contained a large number of my close friends. I’d been looking forward to this for months. For the first few weeks after the move, I was almost constantly happy; being able to see the people I loved at a moment’s notice was such a novelty. But gradually, the novelty began to wear off. Although I’m happier now in general than I was before I moved, my living situation doesn’t give me the instant mood boost it did initially.

Maybe you’ve had an experience like this. Something changes in your life—a new job, a new relationship, a piece of good news—which makes you feel great, but over time the feeling fades. Why do good things rarely last? How can you really sustain happiness over time?

The Hedonic Treadmill

This tendency to quickly adapt to positive events is known as the “hedonic treadmill” (or hedonic adaptation), and is supported by a large body of psychological research. It’s one of the biggest barriers we face if we want to be constantly happy: like running on a treadmill, we have to continually work hard just to stay in the same place.


The field of positive psychology, founded by Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has focused on trying to identify things that can lead to lasting changes in happiness levels. This research has yielded a number of useful insights: simple positive activities such as practicing gratitude, performing random acts of kindness, or reliving positive events from your past really do seem to make people happier if practiced regularly. But even these things seem susceptible to the treadmill effect. Over time, the impact they have on your happiness gradually diminishes.

Why do we adapt?

Why do we tend to react less and less to positive events over time? One reason is that if we experience the same positive event regularly—like getting positive feedback from someone or doing something nice for someone else—we start to become desensitized to it. As positive activities get less exciting, novel and fresh, they don’t trigger the same positive emotions in our brains. What was once exciting becomes normal, so our brains stop reacting to it.

A second, related reason for this adaptation is that over time our aspirations rise. You might think you’ll be happy when you get that promotion, but when it actually comes, you’ll likely be hankering for the next step up. There’s something slightly contradictory here: Most of us may feel like we’d be unhappy without something to strive and aim for, but that striving might itself be causing us distress, by making us feel we’re always just one step away from being truly happy.

Can a good thing ever really last?

While this tendency to adapt might be a barrier in our quest for happiness, it’s not necessarily an insurmountable one. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor from the University of California, suggests two key strategies for avoiding the hedonic treadmill:

The first key to making happiness last, says Lyubomirsky, is variety. Doing a variety of positive activities prevents adaptation by helping slow desensitization. It’s only when we have the same positive experiences over and over again that they begin to feel commonplace. In one study, Lyubomirsky and colleagues found that students who did a variety of different “acts of kindness” adapted much less slowly than students who simply repeated the same act of kindness day after day.

So if you want to be sustainably happy, it’s not enough to find something that makes you happy and do that over and over again. It’s much better to be continually looking for new experiences and things that you enjoy. Of course, this is a lot more effort—but no one said getting off the treadmill was going to be easy.

The second thing that’s important for sustained happiness is appreciation. Something that was once incredibly exciting can have less impact on us over time because we begin to take it for granted. Taking time to properly appreciate the positive things in our lives—the people we care about, a job we enjoy, activities we get to do that are fun—can make us less likely to adapt to their benefits. Lyubomirsky suggests that actively striving to be more grateful for the positive changes in our lives is critical if you want to avoid hedonic adaptation.

I’ve personally found that the best way to truly appreciate positive changes in your life is to use contrasting: Vividly picture what your life was like before the change, or what your life would be like now without it. When I picture what my life was like before I moved—having to travel every weekend to see my friends and boyfriend, missing out on social events during the week—I’m able to genuinely appreciate my life now much more.

Lyubomirsky mentions a number of additional ways to get more lasting benefits from positive things in your life. Certain kinds of activities may be better at producing lasting positive emotions than others: random acts of kindness towards others seem to be particularly effective, as does anything that involves nurturing your relationships with others. Pursuing goals that you feel naturally motivated by rather than things you feel you should or have to do can help with the problem of increasing aspirations, as it means you can enjoy the pursuit of the goal itself rather than just focusing on the end product.

Ultimately, of course, these things forestall adaptation, slow it down, more than they beat it entirely. The only real way to avoid the hedonic treadmill is to find a way to be happy that doesn’t depend on events outside of your control. The only thing I’m aware of that comes close to this—the ability to be happy regardless of what’s going on around you—is the Buddhist concept of enlightenment. I don’t know the key to enlightenment, unfortunately; very few people do. But I do know that simply reminding yourself to live in the moment and trying to accept reality as it is—whatever is going on around you, whatever you’re feeling—can be pretty powerful, and lead to a more reliable feeling of wellbeing. This in itself isn’t easy, but learning something like mindfulness meditation is a good start.

©Rishi Bandopadhay/Flickr

To sum up: to make happiness last, it’s worth trying to:

1. Vary the positive activities in your life.

2. Practice gratitude for the good things in your life, perhaps by contrasting with a time when you didn’t have them.

3. Share experiences with people you care about

4. Pursue goals you feel naturally motivated by, not things you feel you should do

5. Get enlightened! Or rather, begin to practice being mindful and accepting of what is going on right now, whatever that may be.

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