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Hedonic Adaptation

Alright friend, before we dive in, I need you to revisit our conversation on dopamine and the hedonic set point. This little bit of neuroscience gives us a useful pretext for what we’re discussing today—our hedonic setpoint, or our pleasure baseline, is the little mechanism built into our coding that dictates the level at which we typically feel a pleasure response. It’s, to put it simply, our happiness baseline. We know that alcohol impacts this set point by increasing it over time, meaning we require more dopamine to feel good. Once you’ve refreshed your memory, meet me back here. I’ll wait. *sips coffee*

I know you’re over there connecting dots—hedonic set point, the theory of hedonism. It’s starting to click, right? We get the name for the hedonic set point from the theory of hedonism, or the seeking of physical and emotional pleasure. Now let’s introduce one more piece to this puzzle: hedonic adaptation, also known as the hedonic treadmill.

A quick way to explain the hedonic treadmill, without going into much detail, is the idea “the grass is always greener on the other side.” We always want what we don’t have, and then when we achieve it, we want something else. We have a momentary boost of happiness, but it doesn’t last long. Before we know it, we’re 85 years old and still unhappy, unsure of what we did with all of our time. It’s an unsatisfying thought, isn’t it?

When we think back to the hedonic set point, we understand that we have a baseline level of happiness that we default to. Something bad happens, and we dip below our baseline. Something good happens, and we pop up above our baseline. Eventually, however, we always return to neutral. (Unless, of course, we’re using substances to alter our baseline.)

The theory of the hedonic treadmill emphasizes this idea; no matter what happens, we’re going to return to our baseline.

Hedonic Adaptation