The first study looking at this concept came in 1971, where researchers studied lottery winners and people who had recently lost use of their limbs through a tragic accident. The study revealed that though each group had different experiences of happiness initially, over the long term, both groups were relatively similar in their overall experience of happiness. If winning the lottery doesn’t even make you happy, what can?
If this sounds a little depressing, just wait! Further research has given us more context about our happiness baseline, specifically that:
Most human baselines are above neutral, meaning we err on the side of happiness
Our baselines are adjustable (which we already knew through our understanding of alcohol’s impact on the hedonic set point)
People with lower baselines have a lot of room for improvement, meaning they can experience greater change
So how do we get off the hedonic treadmill of always returning to baseline? We still have a lot of room to understand the mechanics of this idea, but initial studies on the practice of meditation suggest that, yes, we can hop off the never ending grind of fleeting happiness. This confirms what we already believe about neuroplasticity around here—we can change our brain with time and attention.
Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(8), 917–927.
Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the hedonic treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well-being. American Psychologist, 61(4), 305–314.
Pennock, S. F. (2021, April 7). The Hedonic Treadmill - Are We Forever Chasing Rainbows? PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/hedonic-treadmill/.