The Endless Pursuit for Happiness

Becky Mollenkamp
6 min readApr 10

A psychological principle—Hedonic Adaptation—may explain why it feels impossible to reach the “finish line” of happiness.

Do you ever worry that you’ll never be truly satisfied? Do you worry that it’s impossible to get happy and stay happy? If so, you’re not alone.

This never-ending chase for happiness is a common feeling, and psychologists posit a possible reason for this phenomenon.

Hedonic adaptation, also known as the hedonic treadmill, is the human tendency to return to a set level of happiness regardless of life’s ups and downs.

Understanding this concept can be really helpful, so let’s dig in.

Photo by Jeremy Perkins on Unsplash

What is the Hedonic Treadmill?

A pair of psychologists introduced the theory of hedonic adaptation in 1971, suggesting that everyone has an emotional baseline that’s constant despite the ebbs and flows of life.

All people do not have the same baseline, but it’s generally more positive than negative for most people.

People experience pleasure or sadness only when something is more positive or negative than their unique baseline. After that surge of emotion, however, they’ll eventually (often quickly) return to their set point.

The phenomenon holds true regardless of the stimuli, including things like getting married, earning a raise, or having a child — or even bad things like a loss or setback.

This tendency to ultimately stay in the same place prompted another psychologist to later coin the phrase “hedonic treadmill.”

It’s possible for the baseline to gradually shift up, but it only happens when someone repeatedly experiences new events that surpass the baseline. This becomes increasingly difficult, though, because people become insensitive to new stimuli.

The higher a person’s baseline, the more intense the stimuli must be to achieve and maintain happiness.

Making matters more complicated, people don’t compare new stimuli only against their own past, but also against those of people around them. So, happiness requires experiences that exceed your own and others’ baselines.

Becky Mollenkamp

Accountability coach for feminist founders.