The hedonic treadmill was first described in a 1971 essay entitled Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society. The authors described a tendency for people to keep a stable baseline level of happiness despite positive or negative external events. The hedonic treadmill, therefore, is a theory positing that people repeatedly return to a baseline level of happiness, irrespective of what happens to them.
Understanding the hedonic treadmill
However, the concept itself was alluded two almost 200 years earlier by philosopher and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his 1754 Discourse on Inequality, he wrote: “Since these conveniences by becoming habitual had almost entirely ceased to be enjoyable, and at the same time degenerated into true needs, it became much more cruel to be deprived of them than to possess them was sweet, and men were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them.”
No one can escape the hedonic treadmill because it impacts nearly every aspect of life. One person may dream of buying a house or starting a new career and fantasize about the happiness these events will bring. However, when these dreams become a reality, the happiness is neither as sustained nor as intense as they envisioned.
Note that the baseline level of happiness varies from person to person. While most people are happy most of the time, some individuals will default to a more neutral or negative baseline.
Real-world examples of the hedonic treadmill
The hedonic treadmill is most often associated with high impact positive and negative events, including:
- Winning the lottery – winning a large sum of money is a happy experience initially, but the individual tends to revert to their previous baseline after the novelty wears off. Some lottery winners may find their happiness decrease because of the way money changes their relationships with family and friends.
- Becoming an amputee – those who lose a limb in an accident or for some other reason experience a tremendous amount of physical and emotional pain. Though they are left with a permanent disability, most return to their previous happiness level.
- Finding a new partner – many attribute falling in love to be one of the most enjoyable experiences in life. However, two people in a relationship quickly become habituated to each other and may experience negative emotions as a result.
The hedonic treadmill in marketing
The hedonic treadmill is one of the main reasons a brand has to deliver new and different versions of its core message to maintain customer engagement over time.
For instance, American insurer Allstate launched a series of advertising campaigns where the company mascot, Mr. Mayhem, portrayed several different disasters that might require the target audience to make an insurance claim. Each disaster comprised a single episode, with each episode designed to provide a new, unexpected, and novel way of communicating Allstate’s brand message.
The hedonic treadmill also impacts product development. After the initial success of Angry Birds began to wane, game developers had to diversify and start releasing subsequent versions to secure the attention of the target audience. Stuffed toys and other physical merchandise were also sold to maintain some degree of novelty in the brand.
- The hedonic treadmill is a theory positing that people repeatedly return to a baseline level of happiness, irrespective of what happens to them.
- The hedonic treadmill is most associated with high impact positive and negative events such as winning the lottery, becoming an amputee, or entering into a new relationship.
- In business, the hedonic treadmill encourages businesses to develop new and different versions of their core brand message to keep customers engaged.