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Looking for More Joy and Gratitude? Try a ‘Hedonic Reset’

Reset your joy and gratitude by getting off the hedonic treadmill.

A few months ago, I lost my power on and off for a few days. It was during the winter, and the temperature outside dropped down to 0 degrees at one point. I woke up one morning with my apartment in the 40s! Without consistent power, I had to wrap myself in any spare blanket I could find, stay clear of the windows, and continually sip hot water.

When the power was permanently restored, and I was finally able to warm my apartment up to a comfortable 68 degrees, I was downright ecstatic. I was so happy to finally be warm again in my apartment. I overflowed with gratitude for the invention of electricity and indoor heating — for being able to turn a light on at will, prepare food at my convenience, and not be freezing cold through the night!

Without knowing it, I had experienced a “hedonic reset.” By not experiencing certain goods (in my case, consistent electricity and heat) for a few days, my expectations and gratitude levels were reset. When I finally did have power again, I felt much, much happier about having electricity than I would have if I had never lost power in the first place.

That word, hedonic, comes from the Greek term for pleasure — it’s an adjective to describe anything having to do with pleasant (or unpleasant) sensations. Julia Clavien runs a media platform dedicated to this idea — she defines a hedonic reset as “strategically and deliberately enduring a temporary deprivation of certain things we enjoy, to slow down hedonic adaptation and produce a disproportionate gain in happiness.”

We’ve all experienced this. It’s why that first slice of pizza is always that much more enjoyable than the fourth. It’s why we aren’t quite as excited about our new job a year after we’ve started it. We acclimate to a particular good, which causes us to experience a lower and lower emotional response to that good over time. Our brain no longer releases the same amount of chemicals (like dopamine or serotonin) that it once did.

This doesn’t happen all at once, but gradually as we acclimate to our new experience. The enjoyment we receive diminishes until it stabilizes. And that new car, new relationship, new watch, new house all start to appear rather ordinary. The silver sheen starts to cloud.

This can put us on an endless cycle of trying to recapture that original “high.” The cycle looks like this: We desire some good or experience, obtain it, feel a certain level of happiness, acclimate and gradually lose that same level of happiness, and then look for a new good or experience to reach that same level of happiness again. And this goes on, over and over again. The phenomenon is aptly named the “hedonic treadmill” because, well, it’s an exhausting cycle that never ends.

The good news, though, is that we can combat this cycle by intentionally engaging in a “hedonistic reset.” In my case, I benefited from a forced “hedonic reset” when I lost consistent power and heat, but we can intentionally introduce one to enjoy the same benefits.

This can take many forms and the idea is quite simple — it’s really about unlocking one of the powerful dimensions of fasting. By intentionally fasting from a certain good — Netflix, going out to eat, sugary desserts, even a comfortable bed — for some time, we can experience a renewed sense of gratitude, excitement, and joy upon engaging in that good again. Our brain, when we finally do engage in the good, will chemically respond in a way similar to when we first experienced some new exciting good.

It could be simple. We could commit to not watching TV during the workweek. We could forgo adding cream and sugar to our coffee for a few days. We could opt to take cold showers for a couple of days (this is a hard one!). There are a number of things we can do, and they don’t have to be heroic sacrifices either. By abstaining in small ways, we can still enjoy the benefit of a hedonic reset. 

This is a valuable practice not just because it can help us reclaim feelings of pleasure and happiness. It also helps us foster a spirit of moderation and control of our desires by not giving into them. Choosing not to watch TV during the workweek or eating a banana instead of the chocolate chip muffin for breakfast in the morning takes discipline, which is a habit that increases our willpower. That increased discipline and willpower makes it easier to do other things that require intentionality and effort.

This discipline frees us to choose the things that are truly best for us. In other words, the more control we have over our desires, the more we’re able to choose the things that are actually best for us, whether or not they always result in feelings of happiness and excitement or not.

Finally, another great benefit of the hedonic reset is that it helps us cultivate gratitude. When we haven’t been able to indulge in something for some time, we are that much more grateful for it when we finally do.

In my case, I was extremely grateful for indoor heat during cold weather, and it made me think about people throughout the world who don’t have access to stable housing or reliable power. I felt quite grateful for the blessings in my life that have given me a warm home to live in. The experience made some of the other inconveniences in my life seem, honestly, not all that bad.

Fostering gratitude increases happiness and joy, which turn into a virtuous loop: the more joy you experience, the more gratitude you feel; the more grateful you are; the more joy you experience.

Ultimately, adopting a hedonic reset is a great way to step off that exhausting treadmill of searching for greater and greater emotional “highs,” and instead experience renewed feelings of happiness, self-control, and gratitude.

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