Learnings Mental Models

The Hedonic Treadmill: Escaping the Illusion of Lasting Happiness


In the pursuit of happiness, humans often find themselves on a never-ending treadmill, constantly striving for more but never truly satisfied. This phenomenon is known as the Hedonic Treadmill, a mental model that describes our tendency to adapt to positive or negative experiences and return to our baseline levels of happiness. Understanding this concept is crucial as it profoundly impacts our decision-making processes. Anchored in human psychology, the Hedonic Treadmill exerts a pervasive influence on our daily lives, affecting personal choices, business strategies, and even public policy-making.

Defining the Hedonic Treadmill and Its Relevance in Decision-Making

The Hedonic Treadmill refers to the psychological phenomenon where individuals’ subjective well-being returns to a relatively stable level despite major positive or negative changes in their lives. It suggests that the pursuit of external circumstances or material possessions as sources of lasting happiness is futile. Instead, true happiness lies in our ability to adapt and find contentment within ourselves.

In decision-making, the Hedonic Treadmill is relevant because it often leads individuals and groups to make irrational choices driven by a mistaken belief that acquiring more material wealth or pursuing external pleasures will bring lasting happiness. This fallacy can result in poor financial decisions, unfulfilling career choices, and misguided policy-making.

Examples of the Hedonic Treadmill in Various Contexts

Personal Life Decisions: Consider an individual who believes that acquiring a luxurious car or a bigger house will bring lasting happiness. They work tirelessly to achieve these goals, sacrificing personal time, relationships, and well-being. However, once they attain these possessions, the initial surge of happiness quickly fades, and they find themselves on the treadmill again, seeking the next big acquisition.

Business Scenarios: In the business world, the Hedonic Treadmill manifests as a never-ending quest for more profits, growth, and success. Companies may pursue constant expansion without considering the toll it takes on employees’ well-being or the long-term sustainability of their business practices. Despite achieving substantial growth, they find that their happiness and satisfaction are short-lived as they quickly adapt to their new circumstances, always craving more.

Public Policy-Making: Governments often fall into the trap of the Hedonic Treadmill when designing public policies. For example, a government might prioritize economic growth and focus solely on increasing GDP without considering the overall well-being of its citizens. While short-term economic gains may create an initial sense of happiness, individuals’ long-term satisfaction may decline as they adapt to a society driven by materialistic values.

Mental Biases and Psychological Underpinnings

Several cognitive biases contribute to the prevalence of the Hedonic Treadmill. The Impact Bias leads individuals to overestimate the enduring impact of positive or negative events on their happiness. They believe that certain achievements or possessions will bring sustained joy, failing to recognize their inherent adaptability to new circumstances.

Additionally, the Availability Heuristic biases our perception of happiness by making us focus on vivid or memorable experiences. We tend to overvalue the intensity of positive events or possessions and underestimate the fleeting nature of their impact on our well-being.

Practical Strategies to Avoid the Hedonic Treadmill

Practice Gratitude and Mindfulness: Cultivate an attitude of gratitude and focus on appreciating the present moment. Mindfulness helps us recognize and savor the small joys in life, reducing our reliance on external factors for happiness.

Pursue Experiences Over Material Possessions: Shift your focus from acquiring material wealth to accumulating meaningful experiences. Engaging in activities that foster personal growth, relationships, and learning can provide a more lasting sense of well-being.

Set Meaningful Goals: Instead of pursuing arbitrary markers of success, set goals aligned with your values and passions. Define success based on personal growth, contribution to society, and overall well-being rather than material possessions or societal expectations.

Foster Connections and Relationships: Invest time and effort in nurturing meaningful relationships. Social connections have been consistently linked to long-term happiness and well-being, providing a source of support and fulfillment.


The Hedonic Treadmill challenges our conventional notions of happiness and reveals the limitations of pursuing external circumstances as sources of lasting fulfillment. By recognizing and understanding this mental model, we can make more informed decisions, avoiding the pitfalls of irrational choices driven by the illusion of perpetual happiness. By practicing gratitude, valuing experiences over possessions, setting meaningful goals, and fostering relationships, we can break free from the Hedonic Treadmill and cultivate a more sustainable and genuine sense of well-being. Awareness and active avoidance of this mental trap are crucial for leading a truly fulfilling and meaningful life.


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