Is the concept of the hedonistic treadmill true?

The hedonic treadmill is a psychological theory that suggests that humans have a tendency to return to a relatively stable level of happiness or subjective wellbeing, despite changes in their circumstances or external conditions.

If it is, then hedonism is not sustainable and happiness only depends on your personality and your brain makeup. Can it be true?

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    Pick one question?
    – Boba Fit
    May 16, 2023 at 21:55
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    How odd! There could be multiple reasons why hedonism is/isn't sustainable. Nature's design may need to be examined more closely. May 17, 2023 at 3:47
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    Why not?....... May 17, 2023 at 5:22
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    Hedonism is a fairly ancient philosophy≥ The 'hedonistic treadmill' is a fairly modern psychological theory (sort of). The first and the second are largely unrelated, so I'm not sure how to approach this question. The philosophy of hedonism is technically sustainable under certain assumptions. The 'hedonistic treadmill' is a coping mechanism meant to explain why we 'get back on the horse' after we've achieved a goal, so it is naturally sustainable. So... what exactly is the question? May 17, 2023 at 7:35
  • @TedWrigley When the question confuses and is confused, the implied question is always 'how does and is the confused question confuse and confusing'. You've obviously laid out the source of confusion, in this case the polysemy of 'hedonism'.
    – J D
    May 17, 2023 at 17:35

2 Answers 2



Epicurus argues that hedonism is sustainable with prudence, that is, if one can acquire and possess the ability to govern action by the use of reason:


Epicurus (341–270 BCE) was a Hellenistic Greek moral philosopher who identified the goal of life as happiness.

For Epicurus, philosophy was above all therapeutic. Philodemos records the tetrapharmakos (“the fourfold cure”), which encapsulated the essentials of the Epicurean outlook as follows: “God is not to be feared, death should cause no anxiety, easily obtained is the good, and easily endured is the bad” (Herculaneum Papyrus 1005).

William James

James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience. The excellent article below quotes extensively from this source on the subject matter of The Healthy-Minded & Sick Souls:


William James observes that individuals, by degrees, can be characterized as healthy-minded or as morbid-minded. In summary, the healthy-minded seem to actively repel suffering and the problem of evil; the sick souls are unable to actively repel suffering or the problem of evil. James also gives examples of conversions or counter-conversions between these two modes: mental happiness or mental suffering.

Sigmund Freud

Freud abstracts away from the social domain of self and others to describe the cognitive functions of the biological ego. I summarize the ego, for brevity, as the effort to govern action in the sensory context. In Civilization and It's Discontents (perhaps translated somewhat poorly into English), Freud says the ego is born with a biological drive to live and to become happy and to remain so in the world. He calls this the Eros drive. Freud argues that the sensory context of the ego is driven by three joint operating causes: by an inner source of biological impulses, by the ego itself, and by external reality. In this context the body is a source of eventual disability, disease, and death, so the ego is threatened by internal enemies to its persistent happiness. The external parents, peers, and social institutions can aid or impair the ego in its effort to live and become happy in the world, so social interactions are a source of happiness or suffering. Natural reality can destroy the ego from outside and the only remedy against hostile internal or external forces is the ego itself or the relations the ego forms with other humans expressing their ego. Freud argues that psychoanalysis or other social institutions can help the suffering ego adjust to natural and social reality, and this orientation toward reality will produce a mix of happiness and suffering for the typical individual. I would conclude that Freud regards persistent happiness as unsustainable in the long term because the conscious ego is under potential threat from hostile internal or external forces.

Freud - Hedonic Treadmill

Sigmund Freud, again in Civilization and It's Discontents, said something about the concept called the hedonic treadmill. I am using my recall of the concept not his exact words. Freud wrote that if the ego takes action to intensify pleasure, then this will often yield intense pleasure, but further persistence in the activity will not persist the intensity of pleasure, which naturally tends to fade. Then the ego would have to switch to another activity to intensify pleasure at least in the short run. In other words, persistent pleasure is sustained by switching activities and the most intense pleasures are not persistent for very long periods of time.

Baruch Spinoza

Baruch Spinoza describes an emotion (affect) as a feeling of desire, pleasure, or pain accompanied by an idea of its cause. He describes desire as appetite accompanied by consciousness thereof. This means appetite is an unconscious source of cause of desire. Also, if the body desires to feel persistent pleasure (happiness) and avoid persistent pain (suffering) then it has an unconscious appetite generating our conscious discussions of hedonism. Helmholtz describes aspects of the sensory context as the product of a neurological-cognitive process that he describes as unconscious inference. The feelings and causal ideas are conscious attributes of the sensory context.

Hedonism is sustainable in this context if the body and/or conscious self can accurately form ideas about the causes of pleasure and pain and act to persist pleasure and eliminate pain. Admittedly this reduction model is too simplified; but the model may be used to propose reasons for the problem of suffering and evil.

Thomas Szasz

Thomas Szasz wrote the controversial book The Myth of Mental Illness. Szasz argues, in this book, that a person complains when they feel pain. In terms of professions and patterns of social drama the person can: (1) complain to the medical doctor; (2) complain to social workers or justice workers; and (3) complain to the psychiatrist or psychologist.

Medical doctors hear complaints and look for signs and symptoms of disease or disability. The diagnosis of medical disability or disease does not depend on the character, personality, or behavior patterns of the patient. The job of the doctor is to identify a cause of disease or disability, and, when possible, provide a remedy.

Social workers or justice workers hear complaints and look for social patterns of adverse present living conditions. The cause of suffering or persistent pain is a social condition and the potential remedy is to alter the social condition.

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can help other doctors identify, and perhaps rule out, the existence of medical disability or disease in a particular case. If one also rules out existing social conditions as a legitimate cause for complaint, then what remains is some form of residual pain or persistent pain in the patient (suffering person).

Szasz argues that mental illness is a category error because the diagnosis of a mental disorder involves only two things: (1) a pattern of behavior; and (2) an interpretation of what it means. This has more in common with religious judgments and judicial reasoning than with the practice of medicine.

Szasz observes that when the child is young the complaints are made to the parents. Therefore dramatic patterns in the professions can be seen as reenactments of the pattern of parent-child interaction but with the further meaning of the adult patient-expert interaction as part of the drama. In this context suffering and the effort to find a remedy evoke the incorporation of dramatic roles and residual childhood memories. I do not recall Szasz making extensive discussion of aesthetic pleasure or pain. But it is evident to me, in part via reading Szasz, that aesthetic emotions at times are the primary if not exclusive driver of social drama.

Hugh Gibbons

Hugh Gibbons, my professor of legal philosophy in 1991, wrote several papers or short books on the justification of law and/or the biological basis of law:


Hugh once describe actionable harm versus aesthetic harm as follows. If the plantiff feels a spiritual connection to all life, then observes me trimming my hedges, and has a nervous breakdown, then am I liable for causing harm under the law? The answer is no because the law only hears a claim for actionable harm. The aesthetic suffering of persons who fall outside the typical norms of society is not an actionable harm to the will of another under the law.

  • this is a through answer. i've read a little szasz. does he say that so called "mental illness" is actually just pain? i recall his phrase "problems of living", which is far more loaded. your professor i am unsure of (fwiw). if someone trims your hedges, knowing you have a spiritual connection with them, then there is at least a viable argument that his or her harassment of you is worse (indeed, trimming your own hedge is pretty reasonable). perhaps a good grounding of legislation, only
    – user65994
    May 18, 2023 at 5:52
  • Szasz did say people have problems in living. Some of these problems cannot be resolved by professional medical doctors, social workers, or justice workers. Helping each other solve problems in living could be addressed via modes of talk therapy. But that practice should not be confused with the quasi-medical diagnosis of mental disorders. Hugh Gibbons defines law as "the justified use of coercion". Coercion means a willed agent interferes with the will of another willed agent. Szasz opposes coercion justified as treatment of mental disease. Law regulates liberty: the ability to exert my will. May 18, 2023 at 18:18
  • @user65994 Please see the comment above in case you did not read it yet. A civil suit is based on a legal theory called a cause of action (COA). The legislature specifies a statutory COA and statutory crimes. A common law jurisdiction specifies COAs for crimes and civil actions which are not statutory but evolve through judicial reasoning. A more modern COA exists called intentional infliction of emotional distress see this article: nycbar.org/get-legal-help/article/personal-injury-and-accidents/…. A COA or crime is the effort to define actionable harm. May 20, 2023 at 16:25

Hedonism includes unrestrained sexual intercourse. This leads to more babies who are raised as hedonists. The baby hedonists grow up, make more babies, and we go round and round. . . . Sounds sustainable to me.

  • Clever quip. ; )
    – J D
    May 17, 2023 at 17:38
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    @JD The quality of the answer is consistent with the quality of the question.
    – Daron
    May 17, 2023 at 17:45

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