Can seeking happiness make you unhappy?

Author: Sai Vira Gupta
Mentor: Dr. Tara Wells
Scindia Kanya Vidyalaya


Happiness is an essential component of overall well-being. It is thus reasonable to assume that seeking happiness will eventually make us happier. But this not the case as seeking happiness could be self-defeating, because the more people seek happiness, the more likely they will feel disappointed. This because because people get adapted to the circumstances that made them happy, this is known as hedonic adaptation. In general, hedonic adaptation involves a happiness “set point,” in which humans maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, regardless of events in their environment. This is why chasing after happiness doesn’t work — we’ve already adapted to it. The key is to learn to appreciate the things that already make us happy — and to do this, we have to try mindfulness strategies like mindfulness meditation, self-compassion and gratefulness.

Can seeking happiness make you unhappy?

Most of us assume that if we get that long awaited promotion or buy a new car or earn more money, we’ll be happy. But is this true? Research (Gardner,2007) shows that our income has little correlation with our level of happiness. In fact, the reason is that, although money gives us more choices, it doesn’t make us happier because we’ve adapted to it. The same thing happens with material possessions. We buy a new car, and at first we’re excited. But soon enough, we’ve adapted to our new car and our excitement wears off. The same thing happens with a bigger house or a fancy job. We chase happiness, but in the end, we’re just chasing the illusion of happiness.

As humans, we tend to associate happiness with the things and experiences that make us feel good. But over time, our bodies and minds have adapted to some experiences, such as eating certain foods, so much so that we experience a pleasurable “high” in response. This phenomenon, known as hedonic adaptation (Frederick,1999). As a result, experiences that used to bring us joy are now often experienced as merely pleasurable, and we might no longer perceive them as “happiness.” The problem with this is that it can lead us to seek these experiences over and over again, but with diminishing returns. This is known as hedonic treadmill. When we’re on the hedonic treadmill, we’re in a state of “epicurean boredom,” as the philosopher Epicurus (Wasson,2016) described it, where we continue to seek the same experiences, but no longer experience much of the initial “high” that comes with those experiences. 

The pursuit of goals is a fundamental human activity. We all set various aims for our lives, which we strive to achieve. One of the best-known models of goal pursuit is Mischel’s (Mischel, Cantor, & Feldman, 1996) three-stage model. The model is a set of propositions about how children and adults go about achieving their goals. In the case of happiness, the feature of goal pursuit may lead to paradoxical effects, because the outcome of one’s evaluation (i.e., disappointment and discontent) is incompatible with one’s goal (i.e., happiness). For example, if a person sets the goal of “being happy,” but does not feel happy after achieving the goal, this person will be both dissatisfied and happy at the same time. This is a clear example of the trade-off between the process and the outcome of goal pursuit. 

Therefore, the pursuit of happiness may be a misguided goal. An experiment described in a chapter by Schooler and colleagues (2004) provides data consistent with this notion. They found that thinking about making yourself happier may cause greater unhappiness. This study tested the existing hypothesis that when people are asked to “try to make yourself happier,” they don’t actually become any happier. The researchers tested this hypothesis by having participants think about making themselves happier (e.g., “try to make yourself smile”) or not (e.g., “just think about being happy”). The results showed that people who thought about making themselves happier were actually less happy than those who didn’t think about making themselves happier.

However, the study design calls for several extensions. First, this experiment should be repeated under other conditions as we don’t really know how the participants in the study interpreted the instructions. Moreover, in this study, the experimenters made sure that participants were happy before they randomly got assigned to one of the two rooms. Because the model above leads one to predict paradoxical effects i.e. valuing happiness in positive but not negative emotional contexts, research is needed that examines valuing happiness in multiple emotional contexts.

Despite these imperfections in the experiment design, the research findings suggest that we may make yourselves unhappy when trying to be happy.

The Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is the name given to the observation that humans tend to return to a relatively stable state of happiness despite major positive or negative life events. This observation is often used to illustrate the difficulty of achieving lasting happiness and well-being. Life events, such as the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, or a promotion at work, are often used to illustrate the hedonic treadmill. For example, a promotion at work may lead to more money but it also means more responsibility. We might experience the high of having more money to spend but then also experience the weight of responsibility, so we go back to our stable state. Brickman and Campbell coined the term in their article “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society” in 1971. They described the hedonic treadmill as “the tendency of people to keep a fairly stable baseline level of well-being, and to respond positively to increases in that level, but also to return to that baseline level following major life changes or reductions in well-being.”

Brickman, et al. (1978) was the first to approach the idea of relative happiness within the framework of Helson’s adaptation level theory, which holds that people will adapt to the level of satisfaction they have achieved. Brickman defined the adaptation level as the level to which one has adapted to, and is satisfied with, a given life. Furthermore, Diener, Lucas, and Scollon (2006) showed that people are not hedonically neutral and that their set points are at least partially heritable. Thus research suggests that hedonic treadmill offers a biological explanation for the set point phenomenon, which was previously only explained psychologically. Nevertheless, it also helps to explain why people’s happiness can back to stable even in the face of significant life events.  

To explain this process, Frederick and Lowenstein (1999) classify hedonic adaptation into three main categories: shifting adaptation levels, desensitization, and sensitization. Shifting adaptation levels refer to the tendency for hedonic experiences to become less exciting over time. This is thought to occur when a person perceives a change in a “neutral” stimulus while remaining sensitive to stimulus differences. The hedonic treadmill is reoriented so that the person aims to experience pleasure in different ways, not in the same way. For example, a person who used to watch movies every night now watches documentaries instead to avoid the habituation and reorientation of their set point. Desensitization is the tendency for initial reactions to decrease in strength or frequency as a result of exposure to a stimulus. The person continues to seek out the same experiences, but in a different way to maintain the excitement and protect the feeling. For example, people who have lived in war zones for a long period of time become desensitized to the destructions that happens on daily basis and will be less affected by occurrence of serious injuries or losses which might have been shocking or even upsetting. Sensitization is an increase in hedonic response as a result of continuous exposure, such as the increased pleasure and selectivity of wine or food connoisseurs.

In their study, Mancini, Bonnano, and Clark (2011) identified individual differences in the way people responded to significant life events, such as getting married, getting divorced, and losing a spouse. The researchers asked people to complete questionnaires in which they reflected on how they felt on a given day at a particular time. The researchers also asked people to keep a diary in which they recorded their feelings and thoughts on a particular day at a particular time. They measured the frequency of different moods and feelings using a validated set of questionnaires. They also used a validated method to assess hedonic set point, which is the baseline level of happiness people feel in their everyday lives The researchers discovered that the majority of people who experienced life changes did not experience change in their first point, though a few did. The researchers also found that happiness set point was relatively stable throughout the course of the study, which is generally a lifespan trajectory for happiness set point.

In summary, the hedonic treadmill helps explain why people’s happiness levels often return to a set point despite big life events. It predicates that regardless of what happens in life, humans will eventually return to their original level of happiness.

Happiness Set Point

Humans have a “set point” of happiness, which they tend to keep throughout their lives, no matter what happens around them. Fujita and Diener (2005) performed a longitudinal research in which participants were asked to assess their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10 at the beginning and conclusion of the study. As a result, the participants’ degree of happiness was calculated as a baseline. The individuals’ happiness levels were assessed again one year later, and then again after another two years. The researchers were able to deduce from this that the subjects’ degree of happiness did not fluctuate over time, implying that their level of happiness was their “happy set point.”

The concept of the happiness set point (or hedonic set point) was proposed by Sonja Lyubomirsky (2006) as a theory that our level of happiness is largely determined by our genetics, a theory that has since been supported by much research. The hedonic set point theory can be applied in clinical psychology to help patients return to their hedonic set point when negative events happen, such as the death of a loved one or getting divorced. A variety of therapeutic strategies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or mindfulness, may be used to boost happiness set point over time. It’s also important to note that the hedonic set point theory can be used to help patients who are in a significantly lower state of happiness than their hedonic set point than they were before. It’s important to keep in mind that the hedonic set point doesn’t mean that you can’t become happier over time, it just means that it takes longer for you to get back to your original happiness set point.

To understand how the happiness set point works, we must first grasp the notion of happiness set point. The initial rush of emotion after winning a large jackpot is described as a state of “Point of Origin”, a feeling of intense pleasure and relief, accompanied by a sense that one’s life has suddenly taken on new meaning and purpose. This feeling of meaning and purpose is a necessary but not sufficient condition for happiness. It is also worth noting here that the Lottery winners in these studies (Brickman,1978) were interviewed shortly after their wins had been announced, so they were still experiencing the “Point of Origin” and were likely in a state of “Flow”. The flow state is a mental state in which a person is so involved in an activity that nothing else matters; the experience is so fun that humans will retain to do it even at extraordinary cost, for the sheer sake of doing it (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) .The state is characterized by feelings of pleasure, focus, and a sense of timelessness. The flow state is often accompanied by feelings of euphoria and a strong sense of well-being. But it is important to note that not all flow experiences are positive, and that the flow state may be experienced in both positive and negative contexts. For example, a person might feel a sense of pleasure while shopping, but that feeling is not necessarily a good thing if the shopping is excessive. Similarly, a person may feel a sense of pleasure while playing a video game, but that feeling is likewise not necessarily a good thing if the person playing the game becomes so engrossed that he or she forgets about his or her other obligations.

Other longitudinal data has shown that subjective well-being set points do change over time, and that adaptation is not necessarily inevitable. In his archival data analysis, Lucas found evidence that some people adaptively change their happiness set points over time, while others show little change or even show signs of maladaptation. This is an exciting finding because it suggests that subjective well-being can be trained like a muscle: the more you work out, the stronger your well-being muscle becomes, but the more you stop working out, the smaller your well-being muscle gets. If you keep at it, you can keep building your well-being muscle and eventually increase your well-being set point. 

The importance of personality in determining our well-being has been well established. It has been supported and explained using the Big Five model (Mancini,2011), where extraversion and neuroticism have been linked to subjective well-being by the notion that people who score high on these personality traits tend to experience more positive emotions and fewer negative ones. However, recent research has also found a significant role for conscientiousness, the Big Five personality trait most closely related to the ability to delay gratification, in determining our wellbeing. This has been explained by the notion that people who score high on conscientiousness tend to experience a higher degree of life satisfaction and a greater sense of purpose in life.

The theory of set point has been challenged. For example, Easterlin (2005) has noted that life’s problems can seriously scar individuals, seemingly permanently depressing their subjective well being. Subjective well being is commonly described as positive feelings of well being, that is, the enjoyment of life, free of suffering, and the absence of negative feelings such as anxiety, depression, or even pain. This is despite the fact that they have apparently been “set” at a higher level of subjective well being. Similarly, Clark (2008) has noted that the theory is unable to explain why some people’s subjective well being fluctuates in response to changes in their circumstances, despite allegedly being “set” at a certain level. The research on subjective well-being has also been plagued by other problems. For example, some people who study subjective wellbeing might be inclined to ask the wrong questions, such as asking people how happy or sad they are. While the responses to these questions are often correlated with each other, they are not the same. In other words, people who report feeling low on the question of how happy do not necessarily feel low on the question of how sad.

A person’s subjective well-being set point is set by many things, such as the person’s genes, the individual’s experiences, and the culture in which they live, but it is also highly malleable. Some people adapt quickly, while others take a lot more time to adapt. This is largely dependent on the ability of the individual to change and the environment in which they live.

Hence, according to set point theories, people have a happiness and well-being equilibrium level that they swiftly return to following important life experiences. Available research reveals that overall well-being does exhibit substantial consistency over time, but it also demonstrates change. When a person experiences a major life change like losing a job, becoming a widow or divorcing their spouse, the impact on their well-being might continue for a long time. In addition, there is a wide range of ways in which people adjust to life’s major changes. Some people are able to swiftly adjust to new conditions in their lives, while others are unable to return to their previous state of well-being.

Ways to Find Sustained Happiness

Most of us are taught that happiness is something that happens to us, rather than something we achieve. We’re told that the key to happiness is finding the right partner, having the perfect job, or owning the latest gadget. But the truth is, genuine happiness is a skill that we can all develop, and it has little to do with external circumstances. The key to happiness is cultivating it ourselves with specific intentional practices. Happiness is also correlated to a number of factors such as cultivating gratitude, embracing all feelings that arise with curiosity and compassion, developing the capacity to create a meaningful narrative around our life experiences (McAdams, 1999), and learning to live in the moment and appreciate the small, ordinary things in life. All of these practices allow us to be truly happy and content with our lives, even when they don’t feel perfect.

In the research literature on how to cultivate happiness three main themes stand out, that is, mindfulness meditation, practicing gratitude, and self compassion. Firstly, mindfulness meditation is defined as paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. Some mindfulness meditation techniques aim to increase focus and concentration, whereas others aim to increase awareness and acceptance. mindfulness meditation has been shown to make people happier by increasing their capacity to experience positive emotions and reducing their tendency to ruminate on negative emotions. 

Research shows that mindfulness meditation can increase the happiness of meditators. For example, Davidson et al. (2003) found that meditation practise was associated with increased happiness in meditators. Meditation has been shown to increase levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are associated with positive emotional experiences. For example, a study by Smith, Compton, and West (1995) demonstrated that even short meditation practices can positively affect self-reports of happiness. In addition, research shows that meditation can increase levels of the hormones oxytocin and prolactin, which are known to increase feelings of love and connectedness. Together, these findings suggest that meditation can increase feelings of well-being and happiness.

Secondly, the practice of gratitude has been found to increase happiness and well-being. Gratitude has been defined as the emotion of expressing appreciation for the good things in life. Expressing gratitude has been shown to increase levels of the hormones dopamine and serotonin, which are associated with positive emotional experiences. Emmons (2003) has done much of the research on gratitude. In one study (Emmons, 2003), he showed that being grateful increases positive emotions and decreases negative emotions. The more aware and deliberate practice of being grateful also increases positive emotions and decreases negative emotions.

Thirdly, self-compassion is defined as a positive emotion that is experienced when thinking about one’s flaws and mistakes and realizing that one is still a good person despite these faults. Research shows that self-compassion is associated with positive emotions, such as feelings of happiness and well-being. For example, a study by Neff et al. (2008) found that practising self-compassion increased feelings of happiness. Similarly, a study by Neff (2010) found that writing about one’s regrets increased feelings of well-being. Together, the evidence suggests that self-compassion can increase feelings of well-being and happiness. 


A large part of the human experience is seeking happiness. But the pursuit of happiness often leads to suffering, because our bodies and brains become accustomed to a state of happiness. When we experience hedonic adaptation, our bodies and minds become desensitized to positive experiences and accustomed to a state of happiness. 

One of the major theories regarding the nature of human happiness is the set point theory of happiness. The set point theory of happiness states that our level of happiness is set at a relatively stable point in our lives, and that our level of happiness can be changed only slightly over time. This theory is supported by the finding that our level of happiness often remains constant even though our circumstances may be changing. The set point theory of happiness is a popular explanation for the finding that people often report being equally happy regardless of their circumstances.

The way to find lasting happiness is by practicing mindfulness meditation, self compassion, and gratitude. These are the true secrets to a happy life. To be happy, we need to have solid connections with ourselves and others, as well as be able to accept ourselves and our circumstances. Not that we must accept our pain, suffering, and problems but that we learn to look for the silver lining, practise gratitude for the little things in life, and learn to love and appreciate ourselves. In this way, we may learn to be really pleased with our life and to be happy with who we are. In other words, the next time you find yourself chasing happiness, remember to slow down in the present now, count your blessings, and practise self-compassion.


  1. An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 908-916
  2. Bono, Giacomo & Emmons, Robert & Mccullough, Michael. (2012). Gratitude in Practice and the Practice of Gratitude. 10.1002/9780470939338.ch29.
  3. Brickman, P.D. and Campbell, D.T. (1971) ‘Hedonic relativism and planning the good society’ in M.H. Appley ed. Adaptation Level Theory. New York: Academic Press.
  4. Brickman, P., Coates, D. and Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 8, 917-927.
  5. Costa, P.T. and McCrae, R.R. (1980) Influences of extraversion and neuroticism on subjective well-being, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 668-78.
  6. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial.
  7. Davidson, R., & Schuyler, B. (2015). Neuroscience of happiness. In J. Helliwell, R. Layard, & J. Sachs (Eds.), World happiness report 2015 (pp. 88–105). New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network. (W. Paul Smith, 1995).
  8. Diener E. The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist. 2000;55(1):34–43. [
  9. Diener E, Emmons RA, Larsen RJ, Griffin S. The satisfaction with life scale. Journal of Personality Assessment.
  10. 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.
  11. Easterlin, R.A. (2005). ‘Building a better theory of well-being’ in L. Bruni and P. Porta eds. 
  12. Economics and Happiness: Framing the Analysis. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.
  13. Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389
  14. Frederick, Shane; Loewenstein, George (1999). “Hedonic Adaptation” (PDF). In Kahneman, Daniel; Diener, Edward; Schwarz, Norbert (eds.). Well-Being: Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.
  15. Fujita, Frank; Diener, Ed (2005). “Life Satisfaction Set Point: Stability and Change”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
  16. Jonathan Gardner; Andrew J.Oswald (January 2007). “Money and mental wellbeing: A longitudinal study of medium-sized lottery wins”. Journal of Health Economics.
  17. Joel Bahr. November 20, 2018.Gratitude is good – even if doesn’t always feel like it. University of California.
  18. Kim, A. & Maglio, S.J. (2018). Vanishing Time in the Pursuit of Happiness, Psychonomic Bulletin & Review DOI.
  19. Kahneman D, Diener E, Schwarz N, editors. Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation; 1999. 
  20. Lim, A (2020, June 15). The big five personality traits. Simply Psychology.
  21. Lucas, Richard E.; Clark, Andrew E.; Georgellis, Yannis; Diener, Ed (2003). “Re-examining adaptation and the set point model of happiness: Reactions to changes in marital status”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
  22. Luhmann, M., & Intelisano, S. (2018). Hedonic adaptation and the set point for subjective well-being. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of well-being. Salt Lake City, UT: DEF Publishers.
  23. Lykken, David; Tellegen, Auke (1996). “Happiness Is a Stochastic Phenomenon” .Psychological Science. 7 (3): 186–189.
  24. Mancini, Anthony D.; Bonanno, George A.; Clark, Andrew E. (2011). “Stepping Off the Hedonic Treadmill”. Journal of Individual Differences. 32 (3): 144–152.
  25. Martin, M.W. Paradoxes of happiness. J Happiness Stud 9, 171–184 (2008).
  26. Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 807–815.
  27. Mills, K. (2021, march ). How meditation can help you live a flourishing life. (R. J. Davidson, Interviewer)
  28.  Dana Royce Baerger , Dan P. McAdams  Narrative InquiryVolume 9, Issue 1, Jan 1999, p. 69 – 96
  29. Neff, K. & McGeehee, P. (2010). Self-compassion and psychological resilience among adolescents and young adults. Self and Identity, 9, 225-240.
  30. Neff, K. D. (2008). Self-compassion: Moving beyond the pitfalls of a separate self-concept. In J. Bauer & H. A. Wayment (Eds.) Transcending Self-Interest: Psychological Explorations of the Quiet Ego (95-105). APA Books, Washington DC.
  31. Neff, K. D. & Germer, C. (2017). Self-Compassion and Psychological Wellbeing. In J. Doty (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science, Chap. 27. Oxford University Press
  32. Richard E. Lucas (April 1, 2007). “Adaptation and the Set-Point Model of Subjective Well-Being. Does Happiness Change After Major Life Events?”. Current Directions in Psychological Science.
  33. Sheldon, Kennon M.; Lyubomirsky, Sonja (2006). “Achieving Sustainable Gains in Happiness: Change Your Actions, not Your Circumstances” (PDF). Journal of Happiness Studies
  34. Sarah Gervais (2015, November 11). Can money make you happy? Department of psychology. University of nebraska.
  35. Science daily. (2018, March12). can seeking happiness make you unhappy?
  36. Schooler JW, Schreiber CA. Experience, meta-consciousness, and the paradox of introspection. Journal of Consciousness Studies2004;11(7–8):17–39.
  37. Szcześniak, M., Rodzeń, W., Malinowska, A., & Kroplewski, Z. (2020). Big Five Personality Traits and Gratitude: The Role of Emotional Intelligence. Psychology research and behavior management, 13, 977–988. 
  38. Tellegen, D. L. ( 1996, may 3). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon.
  39. Watkins, P. C., Woodward, K., Stone, T., & Kolts, R. L. (2003). Gratitude and happiness: development of a measure of gratitude, and RELATIONSHIPS WITH SUBJECTIVE WELL-BEING  . journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 31.
  40. Wasson. L. (2016, September 07). Epicurus. World History Encyclopedia.
  41. W. Paul Smith, W. C. (1995, march). Meditation as an adjunct to a happiness enhancement program. journal of clinical psychology , 51(2), 269-273.

About the author

Sai Vira Gupta

Sai Vira is a 12th grade student at Scindia Kanya Vidyalaya. At 15, she ascended Mt. Kilimanjaro. Sai Vira has completed several internships, including an online summer internship for psychology students via Expression India and an International internship programme with Dr Tara Wells, a professor at Columbia University. She has also competed in a number of drama competitions and in a science fair organised by the DRDO, winning runner-up.