Hedonic Treadmill (Lifestyle Inflation)

practical psychology logo
Published by:
Practical Psychology

Have you ever heard the phrase “money can’t buy happiness?” You might brush off that phrase if you lack funds or are struggling to make ends meet. If you were gifted $100,000 right now, you’d probably be pretty thrilled, right? Money can provide temporary happiness, but a concept called the hedonic treadmill shows that an influx of cash, or any big change in your life, can only affect your emotions for a certain period of time. 

The hedonic treadmill shows us that no matter how our lives change, our minds always find a way to adjust to our situations. Being mindful of this can influence our decisions and help us live happier, more fulfilling lives. 

What Is the Hedonic Treadmill? 

The hedonic treadmill is the tendency for people to always return to a baseline level of happiness, no matter what happens to them. Whether they experience great success or great failure, they will reach the same level of happiness that they achieved before the change.

This phenomenon is also called “hedonic adaptation.” 

Is The Hedonic Treadmill True? 

Yes! Researchers have looked at two different types of happiness and how they affect our overall mood. Hedonism, or the enjoyment of pleasure, is just one type of happiness. We experience hedonism when we eat a great meal or buy the shoes we’ve always wanted. This certainly alters our mood, but is more likely to drop as quickly as it spikes. In other words, once we’ve digested our great meal, we become hungry for the next one.

Another type of happiness, eudaimonia, is the joy we experience by knowing that we are fulfilling our purpose. This is a harder type of happiness to obtain: one, because determining our purpose is a journey in and of itself; and two, fulfilling that purpose can require a lot of hard work! But research shows that this type of happiness is more sustainable than hedonism. Focusing on fulfilling your purpose, rather than seeking pleasure, can create happier feelings over a long period of time. 

Examples of the Hedonic Treadmill 

Lottery Winners 

We dream of winning the lottery, taking a vacation, and living out the rest of our days in bliss. Research shows that’s not what actually happens. Lottery winners often return to a baseline level of happiness within a year of receiving their money. Some even feel unhappy after the change.  

Think a billion dollars will change your life? It might, but it won’t change how happy you are. 

Working Toward a Promotion 

The changes that affect hedonism don’t have to be as dramatic as winning the lottery. Let’s say you are working toward a promotion at work that comes with more stability, a pay bump, and a better title. You tell yourself that if you just get this promotion, everything will change for the better. When you finally get the promotion, you celebrate and feel relief for a little while. Within a year, you feel the stress of your new responsibilities and feel exactly how you did a year prior. 

Happiness After $75,000

In 2010, a research study suggested that happiness “tops out” at a $75,000 a year salary. People who make more than that amount of money may have access to higher-quality things, but aren’t necessarily happier.

That study has proved to be inaccurate, but it doesn’t mean there is a magic number where a person feels their happiness “pleateauing.” A bump in your salary can certainly bring about celebration. With more money, you can have more freedom to do the things that you like best. But money isn’t the only factor when it comes to freedom and how you spend your day. Taking on a second or third job just to make an extra $20,000 a year may add more stress to your life than relief, as you’re spending more time at work and less time with your family. Responsibilities, fulfillment of purpose, and time all play into your job satisfaction and overall satisfaction!

How to Get Off the Hedonic Treadmill

From the time we are young, we receive high expectations on what we need to achieve and who we need to be in life. We often believe that when we reach these goals, we will have “everything,” including happiness. But happiness isn’t just about our status or what is in our bank account. If you find yourself at an unsatisfactory level of happiness, even though you’ve gone through positive changes, reflect on the “hedonic treadmill” that you’re running and make changes to ensure sustainable happiness. 

Be Mindful of What You’ve Gained

Happiness doesn’t just disappear overnight. We gradually become “used” to the material possessions we own or the status we achieve. The higher we climb on the ladder, the easier it is to see the rungs we still have yet to climb. If a person is not mindful of how far they’ve climbed, they will only see the progress they have yet to make and feel unsatisfied with their life. 

To prevent this, remain mindful of where you are in life and how far you’ve come. Mindfulness exercises are easy to do but offer significant benefits to your mental health. Journaling, meditating, or just taking a moment to pause and look around you can provide a gentle reminder of the achievements you have made in the past year, two years, or five years. Think about the person who wanted what you have now. Think about the person who could only dream of what you have now. Let this reflection be a reminder that you are fulfilling your purpose and continuing to grow. 

Spend Your Money Wisely

Winning the lottery may only boost your happiness for a short while, but the choices you make when it comes to spending can actually affect how quickly you “reset” back to a base level of happiness. 

Buying material items, for example, will only boost your happiness for a short period of time. That new car or pair of sneakers? You’re better off spending that money on experiences. A trip to Europe, for example, may cost just as much as some upgrades to your car, but the memories you’ll have of that trip and the lessons you’ll learn along the way will last longer (and boost your mood for longer, too!) 

Consider spending your money on experiences like: 

  • Backpacking across a country you’ve never been to
  • Taking a pottery class 
  • Learning how to boulder or rope climb
  • Hosting an event to celebrate one of your friends who needs a pick-me-up
  • Taking a week off at a resort

Spending money on other people can also keep you off the hedonic treadmill for longer, too. Unless you win the lottery, you’re probably not getting random requests from friends and relatives to help them out with their bills. But if you have money to spare, surprise them. Surprise a person on the street. Surprise your favorite charity. Knowing you are contributing to someone else’s happiness can help boost your own. 

Explore What Makes You Tick 

A Reddit user asked the simpleliving subreddit how they could get off the hedonic treadmill. The comments were eye-opening: 

  • “Happiness lies in finding your good intrinsic values, not the ones that are dependent on others a/o circumstances. Then use these values as your ruler. A good read is Mark Manson’s “Subtle art of not giving a f*ck”...What you describe is a live that should, by other’s opinion, make you happy, but it’s based on external circumstances. It is good to gradually find out what makes you tick. Is it creating things, helping others, being autonomous, learning things etc? Just find that out in the first place, not listening too much on what others, society, your family have to say…Finding your core values is a quest that needs to be done every now and then, because you change over time, and the world changes as well. But put some serious effort in it. Take some time and find some silence to do this
  • “Find the things that give you value, meaning, and happiness. These can be anything, but I've found that the more "in the moment" I can find myself, the happier and less stressed and more meaningful and - importantly - least I care about what other people think about me.
  • “First off, I'd say don't do anything drastic. If I were in your position, I'd find a way to help someone else. Start small, just a little of your time. Maybe tutor someone who couldn't afford tutoring or volunteer somewhere close to campus. Your counselors should be able to point you in a good direction…When this starts to help rid you of that unhappiness, increase the time that you spend to help others. Don't overdo it, or you will burn out and be back to square one…”

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, December). Hedonic Treadmill (Lifestyle Inflation). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/hedonic-treadmill/.

About The Author

Photo of author