My new book, The Body Positive Journal, is out now! Click here to order. Join me on May 15 @ 11am at Black Bird Books in San Francisco for mimosas and journaling in the garden. Click here for event details.
What is the Hedonic Treadmill/Hedonic Adaptation?
Have you ever noticed that when you get something you've really wanted (whether it's an item of clothing, more money or a weight-loss goal), it feels shiny and amazing for a while... but then you go right back to feeling about the same as you had before? (Anyone who has participated in diet culture has probably experienced this.) That's an example of hedonic adaptation, a well-documented psychological phenomenon. In short, this is just how human brains work.
Here's the more official definition from Wikipedia:
Here are two visual representations of the Hedonic Treadmill/Hedonic Adaptation:
In a 1978 article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Brickman and two colleagues documented the seemingly paradoxical findings that lottery winners are not substantially more happy, and accident victims who experienced a major loss of mobility due to the accident are not substantially less happy, than other people. (I don't love ableist research like this that presumes people with disabilities are automatically less fulfilled or less happy, but I wanted to share the paper's findings.)
Hedonic adaptation also invokes another phrase that we see in weight science: set point.
In weight science, "set point" refers to the weight range at which your unique body operates at its best. In hedonic adaptation theory, "set point" refers to the unique level of happiness to which every individual naturally returns following high and low moments. Brickman and Campbell even went so far as to say that our happiness level may largely be genetic.
What can the Hedonic Treadmill or Hedonic Adaptation teach us about having a body?
We can extend hedonic adaptation to the pursuit of body privilege. We've been socialized to believe that having a certain kind of body leads to more happiness, but this theory suggests that just isn't the case. It's important to understand that happiness and privilege are not the same thing.
Now, of course, marginalized people's lives would absolutely be better - some might say "happier" - if marginalization didn't exist. Everyone's life would be better if diet culture didn't exist. What hedonic adaptation theory may be showing us is that when unlocking body privilege is the goal - rather than dismantling fatphobia and diet culture - we're doomed to fail in the long-run no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we sacrifice.
Could these "set points" be our bodies' wisdom, pointing us toward the collective solution we all actually need?
If we truly accepted that our baseline level of happiness and our baseline body weight are largely outside of our control, how would we change our day-to-day decision-making as a culture?
+ Take a look at my books: You Have the Right to Remain Fat (I narrated the audiobook), The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion