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.
Hedonic treadmill examples
Some more hedonic treadmill examples are listed in this section.
Gadgets such as the iPhone are subject to the hedonic treadmill perhaps more than any other product in the twenty-first century.
According to Rob Hudson, chief digital officer at Y&R Group, the average turnover on a new smartphone is just eight months.
Hudson reasoned that smartphones never make people truly happy and most are stuck in a perpetual cycle of buying one and then, almost immediately, looking toward the next model update.
The hedonic treadmill’s impact on smartphones can be seen in the way they were first received compared to now.
Reviews of the early iPhones were mostly poor, but as Apple ironed out kinks and other usability issues, consumers were enraptured with a new piece of technology that could do anything a PC could.
Unlike a PC, however, iPhones could be carried in one’s pocket and many camped at Apple Stores overnight to be the first to get their hands on one.
Fast forward to today and the iPhone has undergone at least 13 model updates (more if you count S models and the like).
The product itself is even more feature rich and technologically advanced than its predecessors, but the sheen has very much worn off.
Now, consumers post reviews that admonish Apple for removing the home button or incorporating a 10-megapixel camera when it really should have been 12 megapixels.
Others are locked in battles that pit Apple against Samsung or Sony which are as perpetual as the hedonic treadmill itself.
In a study that was accepted into the Journal of Economic Psychology in 2017, researchers Johannes Emmerling and Salmai Qari found that car owners experienced “a significant and sizeable decrease in individual happiness in the years after a car purchase.”
After surveying British households over an 18-year period between 1991 and 2009, the pair found that five years after the purchase of a new car, happiness decreased by around 33% due to the hedonic treadmill.
They also found there was an 80% chance of the study participants exhibiting habits that would contribute to the effect – presumably, in this case, a habit involving the purchase of a new vehicle.
In 2017, luxury automakers such as BMW, Range Rover, and Mercedes-Benz admitted that they had too many models after running out of niches to exploit or new markets to enter.
Some models were even hybridized versions of two different markets like the Range Rover Evoque SUV that was re-released as a convertible.
Despite claims the manufacturers would be culling less popular models, Mercedes-Benz was then featured in a subsequent 2020 article over criticism of its product line-up.
In the Australian market alone, the company offered ten different passenger car models, five van models, and seven SUV models which would be also supplemented with 2 additional EV markets in the near future.
While the expansion of the SUV range enabled Mercedes to cater to the growing popularity of these vehicles, other products such as the S-Class coupe and X-Class utility vehicle were retired due to low sales volume.
Might the development of new car models for the sake of it be driven by the hedonic treadmill and the ceaseless demand from consumers for a new set of wheels?
Hedonic treadmill vs. happiness set point
The concept of a hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation is connected to the so-called happiness set point.
In short, the happiness set point theory describes the initial level of happiness that each of us has.
The happiness setpoint, of course, will depend from individual to individual.
The happiness setpoint can be partly due to genetics; in part, it depends on how we respond and reframe our behavior in the context we live in.
In short, while genetics does play a role, we can train ourselves to frame external things that happen in the environment as good or bad.
In other words, those who have mastered the ability to reframe things as “obstacles to overcome” instead of just “bad things” for which you can’t do anything also change how to respond to them.
Regarding happiness set level, it’s critical to set your expectations properly.
If you think that anything is due, that the real world must be good, and that you mostly got to live a comfortable life, then your expectations are too high.
And anything bad, happening to you will be framed as a catastrophe.
Instead, if you do accept the fact that the real world doesn’t necessarily owe you anything.
Bad things happen, and you can decide how to respond to them. Then, suddenly, it also changes your perspective.
Making your happiness set point higher but also more stable over time. You might want to understand the difference between what you can control and what you can’t.
You might want to adopt a piece-of-mind approach for things out of your control. Where pretty much accept that you can’t control what happens to you, but you can control how you perceive it.
And for things you can control, that is where your focus will be. You will need to work as hard as possible to shape the world around you according to your vision.
In this manner, you will be able to build a proper context where you can build the best version of yourself.
- 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.
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