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Getting Off The Hedonic Treadmill (Overcoming Hedonic Adaptation)

Have you ever felt like happiness is always just out of reach?  As if you only needed to achieve your next goal or pay off this debt and then you would be really happy!  This is what is called the Hedonic Treadmill and unfortunately, many of us are on it without even knowing.

In this article, I’m going to go over some ways to help you get off the hedonic treadmill and avoid hedonic adaptation, which will likely result in an improvement in your happiness.


Hedonic Adaptation

To understand the hedonic treadmill, we first have to understand what hedonic adaptation means.  Hedonic adaptation is the habit for our happiness level to return to a stable level despite any positive or negative changes in our life.  This adaptation helps us deal with the curveballs that life will sometimes throw at us but it can also create an internal struggle for happiness.

For example, if something bad happens to us that makes us unhappy, our mind can adapt and after a while bring us back to our base happiness level.  This is a situation where hedonic adaptation is helping us.

On the flip side, if something good happens that makes us extremely happy, our minds will still bring us back to our base level of happiness after a while.  This is a case where hedonic adaptation can be a bad thing.  The extreme happiness fades and leaves us seeking more happiness again.

Here is another way to break it down:

Hedonic Adaptation Chart


Hedonic Adaptation Is:

Good: When Something Bad Happens To Us

Bad: When Something Good Happens To Us


In an ideal world, our minds would only bring us back up to our base level of happiness and would not bring us down after something good occurred.

The latter describes the hedonic treadmill.  This is something I’ve found myself stuck on for far too long until I ultimately realized, I needed to change my mindset.


Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is best described as our mind’s constant struggle to desire for more while thinking it will lead to more happiness.  This is because once we reach something that makes us happy as explained earlier, our minds tend to bring us back down to our baseline happiness.  This is until we find the next “desire” that we think will make us happier.

The desire can be anything like an item (consumerism), a state of physical health (building muscles or weight loss), or even financial situation (I’ll be happy once I reach financial independence!).

The hedonic treadmill is just another form of hedonic adaptation.


How I Realized I Was On The Hedonic Treadmill

The example above about wanting to be in a certain financial situation was how I realized I was on the hedonic treadmill.  I found myself in a constant internal struggle between striving to reach financial independence as fast as possible and at the same time trying to acknowledge the progress I had made at the time.

Specifically, I remember thinking about how happy I would be once I had my student loans paid off.  I felt like once that happened I would really be happy!  The reality was I wouldn’t be able to fully pay off those student loans for another 3 years.

I kept thinking…

Is It Really Going To Take 3 More Years Until I Can Be Happy?


Then it hit me.  I remembered how happy I was when my student loans crossed below $100,000.  It went from $100,346 to $99,346 and it felt great!  I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and that week I was excited and motivated.

Flash forward to today, my student loan balance is $51,504.  The balance has dropped from $100,000 to $51,504 in only 2 years!

I asked myself would me from 2 years ago be happy if I woke up to a student loan balance of $51,504?

I Would’ve Been Ecstatic!

So why am I not happy now…

That is the moment I realized I was on the hedonic treadmill and I needed to get off!

My life was becoming a vicious cycle of Wanting Something –> Waiting To Accomplish It To Be Happy –> Accomplish It –> Adapt –> Want Something Else.

This is what it looked like:

Hedonic Treadmill Cycle

This sweaty guy was me!


How I’m Getting Off The Treadmill

Getting off the treadmill requires work, attention, focus, and mindfulness.  Unfortunately, it’s not a quick fix.  That’s the reason why I say I’m “getting off” the hedonic treadmill instead of I “got off” the treadmill.  It’s still a work in progress.  However, I will share a couple of ways that I’ve found to work for me and can be effective for you too.


“I Get To” Mentality

I was fortunate enough to be introduced to this concept by Shang from Save My Cents.  She was a guest on my show the Inspire To FIRE Podcast and made it clear why the mentality of “I Get To” is so powerful.  A quick summary of the idea is to take moments in your day to reframe your mentality by replacing “I Have To” with “I Get To”.  This simple reframe reminds me to acknowledge my blessings as well as all my opportunities.

The best part is you can incorporate it into your day to day life right away.  I started by doing it once a day in the morning.

Instead of saying “I have to go to work to keep paying my student loans” I changed my mindset to say “I get to go to work to pursue financial independence for a better future for my family“.

That simple reframe brought my happiness back, by forcing me to appreciate the opportunity I had that day.

Another resource I used to keep me motivated was the hashtag #IGetTo On Instagram.  I started following it and it would help remind me to stick with it.  It’s also nice seeing others benefit from this mentality.


Reflecting On Progress Made

Another way I’ve found valuable to “getting off the hedonic treadmill” is to simply reflect on progress.  Reflection is such an important part of someone’s journey.  When I reflected on how I felt 2 years ago with over $100,000 in student loans, I was reminded of the tremendous progress I’ve made so far.

I now do the same thing with my financial independence journey.  I track my progress using Personal Capital and my Financial Independence/Retire Early (FIRE) Calculator.  Then I periodically check to see how I’m doing (maybe twice a year).

By keeping it at only twice a year I get to see real progress being made and I make it a point to celebrate the wins!

I recently came across a quote that I think sums it up perfectly:


Happiness Is A Process Not A Destination

– Alfred D. Souza



These ideas have worked for me but everyone is different.  If you think you are on the hedonic treadmill, I would suggest starting with these ideas and exploring more after.  If you know of anymore or find any please share them in the comments below!

Hopefully, together we can come up with a great list for getting people off the treadmill and living a happier life!


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This information is my opinion and is for information purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.