Hedonic Adaptation And Scam Victims Finding Happiness

Hedonic Adaptation: Understanding the Stability of Happiness and the Path to Lasting Contentment

Primary Category: Scam Victim Recovery

•  Tim McGuinness, Ph.D. – Anthropologist, Scientist, Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.

About This Article

Hedonic adaptation, often called the hedonic treadmill, is the psychological phenomenon where people return to a baseline level of happiness despite significant positive or negative changes in their lives. This concept suggests that while new circumstances can initially alter one’s emotional state, people quickly become accustomed to these changes, leading their overall happiness to stabilize over time.

Both positive events, like promotions or new relationships, and negative events, like job losses or breakups, see initial emotional spikes or dips, but eventually, individuals return to their baseline happiness level. Of course, trauma changes this in many significant ways.

This adaptation highlights the resilience of human emotions and underscores the importance of seeking sustainable happiness through internal qualities and meaningful life pursuits, rather than external achievements. Understanding hedonic adaptation can also inform therapeutic approaches for those recovering from psychological trauma, such as betrayal from relationship scams, by emphasizing the cultivation of inner peace and the development of supportive relationships.

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Understanding Hedonic Adaptation: The Pursuit of Lasting Happiness – Is This Real?

Do We Really Have a Base Level of Happiness? Is that what the Hedonic Adaptation is about?

Hedonic adaptation, often referred to as the hedonic treadmill, is a psychological phenomenon where individuals return to a baseline level of happiness despite significant positive or negative life changes.

Hedonic Adaptation

This concept suggests that while new circumstances can initially alter one’s emotional state, people quickly become accustomed to these changes, leading their overall happiness to stabilize over time. This understanding has profound implications for how we pursue and maintain happiness in our lives.

According to Hedonic Adaptation, each person has a relatively stable level of happiness, known as their “set point,” which is influenced by genetic factors and personality traits. This set point acts as a baseline to which our happiness levels return after experiencing significant life events. For instance, when individuals encounter positive events, such as receiving a promotion, winning a lottery, or beginning a new romantic relationship, their happiness typically sees a temporary boost. However, as they adapt to these improved circumstances, the initial increase in happiness diminishes, bringing them back to their baseline.

Conversely, the same process occurs with negative events. Experiences such as losing a job, enduring a breakup, or facing a health crisis can lead to a temporary decline in happiness. Yet, over time, individuals adjust to these setbacks, and their happiness levels generally revert to their baseline. This ability to recover from adverse events highlights the resilience inherent in human nature.

The concept of hedonic adaptation also explains why material gains often fail to provide lasting happiness. Many people believe that acquiring wealth, and possessions, or achieving certain milestones will bring enduring joy. However, due to hedonic adaptation, the satisfaction derived from these accomplishments is usually fleeting. Once the novelty wears off, people find themselves back at their initial level of happiness, perpetuating a cycle of seeking new sources of fulfillment. In the same way, major financial losses stop affecting people after a point and they return to their happiness baseline (assuming they are not suffering from other psychological issues.)

Understanding hedonic adaptation is important for developing sustainable strategies for maintaining happiness. Instead of relying on external achievements or possessions, individuals can focus on intrinsic factors that contribute to long-term well-being. Cultivating meaningful relationships, practicing gratitude, and engaging in activities that provide a sense of purpose can create lasting happiness. These approaches help individuals build a more resilient foundation for their emotional well-being, less susceptible to the transient effects of external changes.

Shift in Perspective

The concept of hedonic adaptation also suggests that people continuously seek new sources of happiness, believing that these will bring lasting joy. However, due to the nature of hedonic adaptation, the effects of these sources are often temporary. This understanding can help people focus on long-term strategies for maintaining happiness, such as cultivating relationships, practicing gratitude, and engaging in meaningful activities. It also highlights why material gains, such as money and possessions, often fail to provide lasting happiness.

Recognizing hedonic adaptation encourages a shift in perspective. It underscores the importance of appreciating the present moment and finding contentment in everyday experiences. By maintaining a mindset that values intrinsic satisfaction over extrinsic rewards, individuals can break free from the relentless pursuit of fleeting pleasures and achieve a more enduring sense of happiness. This sounds a lot like gratitude!

Hedonic Adaptation and Psychological Trauma

Hedonic adaptation, the tendency for individuals to return to a baseline level of happiness following significant life changes, can be significantly influenced and altered by psychological trauma. Trauma, which involves experiences of intense stress, fear, or helplessness, can have long-lasting effects on an individual’s psychological and emotional well-being. Here are several ways in which psychological trauma can impact hedonic adaptation:

Slower Recovery to Baseline Happiness

Psychological trauma typically leads to a prolonged decrease in baseline happiness. While hedonic adaptation typically involves returning to a pre-event level of happiness, trauma can extend this recovery period significantly from hours or days to months and years. For many individuals, the negative effects of trauma persist longer than other life changes, and the process of returning to baseline happiness can be slower and more challenging.

Altered Set Point

In some cases, severe trauma can permanently alter an individual’s set point of happiness. Instead of returning to their previous baseline, individuals might experience a new, lower baseline level of happiness. This can be due to the long-term psychological impacts of trauma, such as chronic anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Increased Sensitivity to Stress

Trauma can increase an individual’s sensitivity to future stressors (and triggers,) making them more reactive to negative events and less capable of bouncing back to their previous happiness levels. This heightened sensitivity can hinder the process of hedonic adaptation, as minor stressors may trigger more intense and prolonged emotional responses.

Impaired Coping Mechanisms

Trauma can disrupt an individual’s ability to employ effective coping mechanisms. This impairment can make it more difficult for them to adapt to changes and recover from negative experiences. Without healthy coping strategies, individuals might struggle to manage their emotions and stress, prolonging the period of reduced happiness.

Resilience and Post-Traumatic Growth

Conversely, it’s important to note that not all effects of trauma are negative. Some individuals experience post-traumatic growth, where they develop increased resilience, a greater appreciation for life, and stronger interpersonal relationships following trauma. These positive changes can enhance an individual’s ability to adapt and potentially lead to a higher baseline level of happiness over time. This phenomenon highlights that trauma can, in some cases, result in personal growth that positively influences hedonic adaptation.

Role of Support Systems

The presence of strong support systems, such as family, friends, mental health professionals, support groups, etc., can significantly influence how trauma affects hedonic adaptation. Effective support can facilitate healing and help individuals develop healthier coping strategies, promoting a quicker return to baseline happiness. Conversely, a lack of support can worsen the negative effects of trauma, hindering the process of adaptation.

Therapeutic Interventions

Psychological interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and other forms of trauma-focused therapy, can aid in mitigating the long-term effects of trauma. These therapies can help individuals process their experiences, develop coping skills, and gradually return to or establish a new baseline level of happiness.

Hedonic Adaptation and Scam Victims

Hedonic adaptation plays a significant role in the recovery process for victims of trust-based relationship scams who suffer from betrayal trauma.

Betrayal trauma, which arises when a trusted person or institution violates the trust of an individual, can have profound psychological effects.

Understanding how hedonic adaptation influences recovery can offer insights into the emotional journey of scam victims and inform effective support and intervention strategies.

Initial Emotional Impact and Baseline Disruption

When a scam victim discovers they have been deceived by someone they trusted, the initial emotional impact is often severe. This discovery typically leads to intense feelings of betrayal, shock, anger, and sadness. The depth of the emotional response can disrupt the individual’s baseline level of happiness significantly. The immediate aftermath of the betrayal is marked by a sharp decline in emotional well-being, making it difficult for the victim to see a path to recovery.

Prolonged Recovery Process

For victims of trust-based scams, hedonic adaptation involves a prolonged and complex recovery process. Unlike other negative life events, betrayal by a trusted individual can lead to deeper and more persistent emotional scars. This extended recovery period is due to the profound impact betrayal has on one’s sense of safety, trust, and self-worth. The process of adapting back to a baseline level of happiness is slower because the trauma affects core beliefs and relationships, which are integral to emotional stability, and the baseline will often be much lower as well.

Re-establishing Trust and Emotional Stability

Rebuilding trust, both in oneself and in others, is an essential part of recovering from betrayal trauma. Scam victims must navigate the challenging process of distinguishing between genuine and deceitful relationships, which can cause heightened vigilance and anxiety. This distrust can hinder the natural course of hedonic adaptation by preventing the victim from forming new, positive connections that could facilitate emotional recovery.

Role of Support Systems and Therapy

Effective support systems, including friends, family, dedicated scam victims support & recovery programs, and mental health professionals, play a pivotal role in helping victims of betrayal trauma adapt and recover. Supportive relationships can provide a sense of security and understanding, which are essential for rebuilding trust and emotional well-being. Therapeutic interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), trauma-focused therapy, and support groups, can aid in processing the trauma, developing healthy coping mechanisms, and gradually restoring the victim’s baseline level of happiness.

Potential for Post-Traumatic Growth

Despite the severe impact of betrayal trauma, some individuals may experience post-traumatic growth, where they emerge from their experiences with greater resilience, wisdom, and emotional strength. This growth can positively influence hedonic adaptation by helping victims establish a new, possibly higher, baseline level of happiness. Factors contributing to post-traumatic growth include finding meaning in the experience, developing a stronger sense of self, and building deeper, more authentic relationships.

Hedonic Adaptation and Buddhist Teachings

Hedonic adaptation and Buddhist teachings intersect in several significant ways, particularly in their perspectives on the pursuit of happiness, the nature of desires, and the cultivation of long-term well-being.

SCARS Note: When we introduce Buddhist teachings or philosophy, we are not referring to the religion of Buddhism, such as is practiced in Asia, but rather the philosophy of the real person as developed over time. In our writing, we often turn toward the teachings and ethics of many other philosophies as well. Many of these same concepts are found in most of the world’s dominant religions as well.

Here are some key connections:

The Nature of Desires and Impermanence

Hedonic Adaptation: Hedonic adaptation describes how people quickly return to a baseline level of happiness after experiencing positive or negative changes. This suggests that the pursuit of external achievements, material possessions, or transient pleasures often fails to provide lasting happiness because individuals adapt to these changes over time.

Buddhist Teachings: Buddhism teaches that all things are impermanent (anicca) and that attachment to transient things leads to suffering (dukkha). Desires and cravings (tanha) are seen as root causes of suffering because they are based on the illusion that external objects can provide lasting satisfaction. The cycle of craving and adaptation mirrors the Buddhist concept of the samsaric cycle, where the pursuit of temporary pleasures leads to a continuous cycle of unfulfilled desire and suffering.

The Pursuit of Inner Peace and Contentment

Hedonic Adaptation: Understanding hedonic adaptation can shift focus from external sources of happiness to internal states of well-being. Since external changes have only temporary effects on happiness, cultivating inner qualities like gratitude, mindfulness, and compassion becomes essential for lasting contentment.

Buddhist Teachings: Buddhism emphasizes the cultivation of inner peace and contentment through practices like meditation, mindfulness, and ethical living. The goal is to develop an understanding of the true nature of reality, reduce attachment, and achieve a state of lasting inner peace and happiness (nirvana). The Eightfold Path provides a practical guide to achieving this, focusing on right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Mindfulness and Present-Moment Awareness

Hedonic Adaptation: Practices that promote mindfulness and present-moment awareness can mitigate the effects of hedonic adaptation. By fully engaging in and appreciating the present moment, individuals can enhance their overall sense of well-being and reduce the constant chase for new pleasures, or chasing the negative side as well.

Buddhist Teachings: Mindfulness (sati) is a core aspect of Buddhist practice. It involves being fully present and aware of one’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences without attachment or aversion. This practice helps individuals observe the impermanent nature of their thoughts and feelings, reducing the impact of cravings and aversions. Through mindfulness, practitioners can break the cycle of craving and dissatisfaction, leading to greater equanimity and contentment.

Reducing Suffering through Detachment

Hedonic Adaptation: Recognizing the temporary nature of pleasure and pain can lead individuals to seek more sustainable sources of happiness. This often involves detaching from the relentless pursuit of external rewards or causes and focusing on internal growth and resilience.

Buddhist Teachings: Buddhism teaches that detachment from desires and material possessions can reduce suffering. By understanding the impermanent nature of all things and practicing detachment, individuals can avoid the dissatisfaction that comes from chasing fleeting pleasures or satisfactions. This detachment is not about rejecting life but about engaging with it in a way that reduces suffering and promotes lasting internal and external peace and happiness.

How Can You Recognize Hedonic Adaptation

Recognizing when you are on your hedonic adaptation baseline of happiness involves self-awareness and an understanding of your emotional patterns over time. Here are some ways to identify your baseline level of happiness:

Track Your Emotions Over Time

Keeping a journal or using a mood-tracking app can help you observe and record your daily emotions. By documenting how you feel over weeks or months, you can identify patterns and notice how your mood fluctuates in response to different events. Your baseline happiness is often reflected in the average mood you experience when there are no major positive or negative events influencing your feelings.

SCARS Note: Now you may understand why SCARS strongly recommends against scammer exposing. This process chases satisfaction but here in reality none exists.

Reflect on Your Emotional Responses

Take time to reflect on how you respond to significant life events. Do you notice that after the initial excitement of a positive event or the distress of a negative one, your mood eventually returns to a more stable state? This stable state, where your emotional highs and lows balance out, is indicative of your baseline happiness. It does not mean you are ‘happy’, it just means you leveled out.

Consider Your Long-Term Satisfaction

Think about your overall satisfaction with life aspects such as relationships, work, and personal growth. Your baseline happiness is often reflected in your general contentment and fulfillment in these areas, rather than fleeting moments of joy or sadness.

Identify Consistent Sources of Joy

Observe what consistently brings you joy and satisfaction. Activities, people, and environments that contribute to your happiness regularly, regardless of external circumstances, can help you gauge your baseline level of happiness.

Monitor Physical and Mental Health

Your physical and mental health can significantly influence your baseline happiness. Regular check-ins on your health, including stress levels, sleep patterns, and general well-being, can provide insights into your emotional state. A stable and healthy physical condition often correlates with a stable emotional baseline.

Seek Feedback from Others

Sometimes, those close to you can provide valuable insights into your emotional patterns. They might notice consistent traits or moods that you overlook or that your own coping mechanisms hide from you. Asking trusted friends or family members about their observations can help you understand your baseline happiness.

Practice Mindfulness and Self-Awareness

Engage in mindfulness practices such as meditation, deep breathing, or yoga. These activities enhance self-awareness and help you stay attuned to your inner emotional state. Increased mindfulness can make it easier to recognize your baseline happiness amidst life’s fluctuations.

Studies Support the Ideas in Hedonic Adaptation

Hedonic adaptation, or the tendency for people to return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes, has been supported by numerous studies across various domains. Here are a few key studies that provide evidence for the principles underlying hedonic adaptation:

1. Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978)

Study on Lottery Winners and Paraplegics: This landmark study compared the happiness levels of recent lottery winners and paraplegics with control groups. The researchers found that while lottery winners initially experienced a significant boost in happiness and paraplegics experienced a significant decrease, both groups eventually returned to their baseline levels of happiness. This study provided early evidence of hedonic adaptation by showing that significant life events only temporarily affect happiness levels.

2. Diener, Lucas, and Scollon (2006)

Study on Longitudinal Happiness: Ed Diener and colleagues conducted longitudinal studies to track individuals’ happiness over time. They found that major life events, such as marriage or divorce, had only temporary effects on individuals’ reported happiness. Over time, people adapted to these events, and their happiness levels returned to baseline. This research emphasized the transient nature of happiness changes in response to significant life events.

3. Frederick and Loewenstein (1999)

Review on Hedonic Adaptation: Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein reviewed various studies on hedonic adaptation and found consistent evidence that people quickly adjust to changes in their lives. Their review highlighted that both positive and negative changes are followed by a period of adjustment, after which individuals return to their baseline levels of happiness. They also discussed the implications of this phenomenon for understanding consumer behavior and well-being.

4. Lucas, Clark, Georgellis, and Diener (2003)

Study on Marriage and Happiness: Richard Lucas and his colleagues investigated the effects of marriage on long-term happiness. They found that while people experienced an increase in happiness around the time of their marriage, this increase was not permanent. Over time, individuals’ happiness levels returned to their pre-marriage baseline. This study further supported the concept of hedonic adaptation by showing that even significant positive life events do not lead to lasting changes in happiness.

5. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon, and Schkade (2005)

Sustainable Increases in Happiness: Sonja Lyubomirsky and her colleagues explored how people might achieve lasting increases in happiness. Their research suggested that intentional activities, such as practicing gratitude or engaging in acts of kindness, can lead to sustained improvements in happiness. However, they also acknowledged that individuals tend to adapt to these changes over time, underscoring the challenge of achieving long-term happiness.

6. Fujita and Diener (2005)

National Surveys on Well-Being: Frank Fujita and Ed Diener analyzed large-scale national surveys to examine the stability of subjective well-being over time. They found that while individuals’ happiness levels fluctuated in response to life events, there was a strong tendency for happiness to revert to a baseline level. This large-scale evidence reinforced the idea that happiness is relatively stable despite life’s ups and downs.

These studies collectively support the concept of hedonic adaptation by demonstrating that individuals tend to return to a stable level of happiness after experiencing significant life changes. They highlight the temporary impact of both positive and negative events on well-being and emphasize the resilience of human happiness. Understanding these findings can help individuals focus on sustainable strategies for enhancing well-being, such as fostering meaningful relationships and practicing gratitude, rather than relying solely on external achievements or material gains.


Hedonic adaptation highlights the temporary nature of emotional responses to life events, emphasizing the need for sustainable approaches to maintaining happiness. While external changes can provide temporary boosts or dips in happiness, true and lasting well-being comes from within. By focusing on meaningful relationships, gratitude, and purposeful activities, individuals can build a resilient foundation for happiness that withstands the ebb and flow of life’s circumstances. Understanding and embracing the principles of hedonic adaptation can lead to a more fulfilling and balanced approach to the pursuit of happiness.

Psychological trauma can significantly impact hedonic adaptation, often leading to a slower recovery to baseline happiness or even altering the baseline itself. Increased sensitivity to stress, impaired coping mechanisms, and the potential for post-traumatic growth all play roles in how trauma affects an individual’s emotional recovery. Support systems and therapeutic interventions are crucial in facilitating recovery and helping individuals adapt to their new circumstances. Understanding these dynamics can inform approaches to mental health care and support for trauma survivors, aiding in their journey toward regaining and sustaining well-being.

Hedonic adaptation in the context of recovering from trust-based relationship scams and betrayal trauma involves a prolonged and challenging journey back to emotional stability. The initial impact of betrayal severely disrupts the victim’s baseline happiness, and the recovery process is hindered by the profound effects on trust and self-worth. However, with the support of strong social networks and therapeutic interventions, victims can gradually rebuild their trust and emotional well-being. Understanding the dynamics of hedonic adaptation in this context highlights the importance of tailored support and the potential for personal growth, even after profound betrayal.

Hedonic adaptation and Buddhist teachings both highlight the limitations of seeking happiness through external means and emphasize the importance of cultivating inner qualities for lasting well-being. While hedonic adaptation explains the psychological mechanism behind the temporary nature of happiness derived from external changes, Buddhism provides a philosophical and practical framework for transcending this cycle through mindfulness, ethical living, and the cultivation of inner peace. By aligning with these teachings, individuals can achieve a more profound and enduring sense of contentment.

Recognizing your hedonic adaptation baseline of happiness involves a combination of tracking your emotions, reflecting on your responses to life events, and maintaining a consistent awareness of your general life satisfaction and well-being. By using these strategies, you can better understand your emotional baseline and how it shifts over time, allowing you to foster a more stable and resilient sense of happiness.

Important Information for New Scam Victims

If you are looking for local trauma counselors please visit counseling.AgainstScams.org or join SCARS for our counseling/therapy benefit: membership.AgainstScams.org

If you need to speak with someone now, you can dial 988 or find phone numbers for crisis hotlines all around the world here: www.opencounseling.com/suicide-hotlines

Statement About Victim Blaming

Some of our articles discuss various aspects of victims. This is both about better understanding victims (the science of victimology) and their behaviors and psychology. This helps us to educate victims/survivors about why these crimes happened and to not blame themselves, better develop recovery programs, and to help victims avoid scams in the future. At times this may sound like blaming the victim, but it does not blame scam victims, we are simply explaining the hows and whys of the experience victims have.

These articles, about the Psychology of Scams or Victim Psychology – meaning that all humans have psychological or cognitive characteristics in common that can either be exploited or work against us – help us all to understand the unique challenges victims face before, during, and after scams, fraud, or cybercrimes. These sometimes talk about some of the vulnerabilities the scammers exploit. Victims rarely have control of them or are even aware of them, until something like a scam happens and then they can learn how their mind works and how to overcome these mechanisms.

Articles like these help victims and others understand these processes and how to help prevent them from being exploited again or to help them recover more easily by understanding their post-scam behaviors. Learn more about the Psychology of Scams at www.ScamPsychology.org

SCARS Resources:

Psychology Disclaimer:

All articles about psychology and the human brain on this website are for information & education only

The information provided in this and other SCARS articles are intended for educational and self-help purposes only and should not be construed as a substitute for professional therapy or counseling.

Note about Mindfulness: Mindfulness practices have the potential to create psychological distress for some individuals. Please consult a mental health professional or experienced meditation instructor for guidance should you encounter difficulties.

While any self-help techniques outlined herein may be beneficial for scam victims seeking to recover from their experience and move towards recovery, it is important to consult with a qualified mental health professional before initiating any course of action. Each individual’s experience and needs are unique, and what works for one person may not be suitable for another.

Additionally, any approach may not be appropriate for individuals with certain pre-existing mental health conditions or trauma histories. It is advisable to seek guidance from a licensed therapist or counselor who can provide personalized support, guidance, and treatment tailored to your specific needs.

If you are experiencing significant distress or emotional difficulties related to a scam or other traumatic event, please consult your doctor or mental health provider for appropriate care and support.

If you are in crisis, feeling desperate, or in despair please call 988 or your local crisis hotline.

PLEASE NOTE: Psychology Clarification

The following specific modalities within the practice of psychology are restricted to psychologists appropriately trained in the use of such modalities:

  • Diagnosis: The diagnosis of mental, emotional, or brain disorders and related behaviors.
  • Psychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis is a type of therapy that focuses on helping individuals to understand and resolve unconscious conflicts.
  • Hypnosis: Hypnosis is a state of trance in which individuals are more susceptible to suggestion. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and pain.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a type of therapy that teaches individuals to control their bodily functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including stress, anxiety, and pain.
  • Behavioral analysis: Behavioral analysis is a type of therapy that focuses on changing individuals’ behaviors. It is often used to treat conditions such as autism and ADHD.
    Neuropsychology: Neuropsychology is a type of psychology that focuses on the relationship between the brain and behavior. It is often used to assess and treat cognitive impairments caused by brain injuries or diseases.

SCARS and the members of the SCARS Team do not engage in any of the above modalities in relationship to scam victims. SCARS is not a mental healthcare provider and recognizes the importance of professionalism and separation between its work and that of the licensed practice of psychology.

SCARS is an educational provider of generalized self-help information that individuals can use for their own benefit to achieve their own goals related to emotional trauma. SCARS recommends that all scam victims see professional counselors or therapists to help them determine the suitability of any specific information or practices that may help them.

SCARS cannot diagnose or treat any individuals, nor can it state the effectiveness of any educational information that it may provide, regardless of its experience in interacting with traumatized scam victims over time. All information that SCARS provides is purely for general educational purposes to help scam victims become aware of and better understand the topics and to be able to dialog with their counselors or therapists.

It is important that all readers understand these distinctions and that they apply the information that SCARS may publish at their own risk, and should do so only after consulting a licensed psychologist or mental healthcare provider.


The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of the Society of Citizens Against Rleationship Scams Inc. The author is solely responsible for the content of their work. SCARS is protected under the Communications Decency Act (CDA) section 230 from liability.







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