Hedonic treadmill is the behavorial tendency to return back to the same level of happiness after experiencing positive or negative events.
Let’s rewind time and go back to the past. Try to recall how life was ten years back. Your city looked different, some of your favorite apps did not exist, and technology was less advanced. If you had to live the same lifestyle today, you’d have a hard time fitting in.
Try to remember your personal life too. Your income was different, whether that figure was higher or lower. You do not hang out with the same exact set of people as frequently anymore. Maybe you’re with a different partner now. Even the goals you’re pursuing are no longer the same.
But how much has your happiness changed? If you’re like most people, you are experiencing a similar state of joy, irrespective of the changes that occurred over the decade.
If you’re a career-oriented person, you’re chasing new goals no matter how much you have achieved. If you’re a travel enthusiast, you’re looking to cover more locations irrespective of how many places you have visited.
That’s what the hedonic treadmill is. Your state of mind remains constant irrespective of the events that occur in your life.
- What is the hedonic treadmill?
- Real life examples of positive changes:
- Real life examples for negative changes:
- Takeaway from the hedonic treadmill
What is the hedonic treadmill?
The hedonic treadmill is the tendency to return to the same state of happiness irrespective of the positive and negative incidents that occur in life.
Every major event leads to happiness or displeasure, but that’s only short-lived. After a while, you no longer feel the same contentment or pain about the episode because you get habituated.
Over time, no matter what the change, you will adapt to the circumstances and your state of happiness will return to its original level. What was excellent or repulsive for some time, turns into the norm. The tendency is also called hedonic adaptation as per psychology and is one of the cognitive biases of the human mind.
The cycle of the hedonic treadmill for a positive experience looks like follows:
You can break the pattern into 4 parts.
In your current situation, you’re aiming for a target. It could be a long term plan, a new materialistic thing you want to buy or any other goal.
Reasons to achieve the target:
You have one or more reasons behind the want. Sometimes they’re genuine, and sometimes you fabricate them to convince yourself.
For example, you want to make a career change because you intend to provide a more comfortable life for your family. That’s a genuine reason.
But, when you want to buy an expensive television, you tell yourself that the bigger screen will make a tremendous difference. The confusion between your wants and needs prompts you to come up with justifications like those.
Achieving the target:
Sooner or later, you achieve the target. You learn new skills and make a career change or swipe your credit card to buy a gigantic curved TV. You feel overjoyed for a while and praise yourself for the decision, effort, and price.
The new state becomes the norm:
Unfortunately, the feeling of joy dilutes with time. You soon adapt to the latest state of life and start aiming for something higher.
You now look for a promotion in your new career to increase your income and comfort. The massive TV seems ordinary, and you consider buying an 8K Ultra HD screen.
Let’s see how the hedonic treadmill works when you’re buying a new car.
The want: You already have a car that does the job of taking you from point A to point B. But you want a new vehicle. So, you shortlist a few options.
The reasons: You will have identified different reasons to justify buying a new car, such as a bigger family, better fuel efficiency, higher power, or a better status symbol. Whether your logic is genuine or just an excuse is beside the point.
Achieving the target: You buy the new car after taking many test drives and reading hundreds of articles from automobile websites. You feel thrilled to hold the steering for the first time and turn the ignition on. You relish the new features, the acceleration, and the comfort.
The new state becomes the norm: In a couple of years, you and your family are used to the vehicle. The power seems ordinary, and the seats don’t seem as satisfying as they once were. You enter the starting point of the cycle with the target to buy a better car.
Real life examples of positive changes:
Here are examples from daily life where you go through the hedonic treadmill without your knowledge.
1. More income
Irrespective of what you earn, you’ll look forward to making more money. Whether you’re a professional entering your first job, a senior executive of a Fortune 500 company, or a successful entrepreneur, the equation remains the same.
“I earn enough money. I do not want any further hikes or growth. Please reduce my current income,” said no person ever. The common tendency is to improve the standard of living as and when you have more money. The houses get bigger, and the cars get fancier because you’re under abundance denial.
Have you noticed how people who move from developing countries to a developed country for a job settle there forever? That’s because, once they habituate themselves to the organized life, settling down in a less comfortable environment no longer seems like a feasible option.
As human beings, you and I always look forward to a better future.
2. Career growth
If career growth is among your goals, you will never quench your thirst for stepping it up. I am not saying you will lead a life of disappointment, but you will never stop aiming for the next target.
Whether you’re an employee or an entrepreneur makes no difference. As an employee, you start as an individual contributor and grow yourself into a subject matter expert or a manager. But, the buck doesn’t stop there. You strive hard to become a senior manager, a director, an executive, and so on.
As an entrepreneur, life is no different. You begin with the aim of making enough money to keep the business standing and your expenses covered. If you’re successful in growing beyond that phase, you aim to increase your profits.
Eventually, you’ll put all your effort into making it a million-dollar business. Once you do, you’ll find another opportunity to enter a related segment or start a new venture altogether.
3. Materialistic things
As explained in the car purchase example earlier, the need for better materialistic things never ends. It applies to houses, phones, cars, computers, refrigerators, and whatnot.
Yes, sometimes the appliance is outdated or old, and replacing it makes sense. But, often, you feel the urge to purchase a new object just to feel better. Unfortunately, once the shininess wears off, the satisfaction and pleasure die off. That’s when the desire for another experience pops up.
4. Other little aspects
You will observe a similar pattern in the tiniest aspects of your life. Studies have shown that the first bite of food, the early sips of beer, and the initial puffs of the cigarette yield the highest pleasure. Though you’re experiencing the same thing a few moments later, it fails to feel special.
Real life examples for negative changes:
The cycle applies not just to positive events but negative incidents too. Pain or discomfort becomes easier to handle after a while. As time goes by, you forget the incident altogether.
Let’s go through a few examples.
The flow of moving from one relationship to another occurs as follows:
The current relationship ends with a breakup. Initially, you feel terrible about it, and feelings of grief, disappointment, frustration are common. Many people cry or isolate themselves to overcome these emotions.
After a few weeks or months, you no longer feel so heartbroken. You might wonder why did you even date your ex. By then, you’re back on your feet, resuming your normal life and possibly considering a new relationship.
If you date another person, you find yourself on cloud 9. You believe this is your best relationship ever, and you wish you had met the person sooner.
If, for some reason, you break up with the person, the same cycle repeats. The last relationship seems like the best until you part ways.
Hedonic adaptation occurs in marriage too where the transformation from a single life seems like a drastic change at first until it settles in.
2. Crime or prison
When a person is forced into crime or does so out of desperation, he feels incredibly guilty about the whole business. But, eventually, he accepts it as his regular life.
If you have watched movies, you’d have seen how a kind-hearted person transforms into a cold-blooded criminal who feels no regret.
A similar pattern occurs when an ordinary person is thrown into prison. The TV series Orange is the new black, though fictional, shows the experience of a common lady in jail and the change she goes through.
Even in reality, prisoners who spent a decade or longer in prison have mentioned that they could no longer lead a normal life. Sure, there are challenges with making a living once a person is out of prison, but the more significant obstacle was adapting to the world outside.
Some convicts released after 20 years have requested to go back to jail. Few prisoners have even committed suicide after failing to cope up with life outside prison.
3. Paralysis due to an accident
A study on the hedonic treadmill effect involved two groups of people. One included lottery winners, and other contained people who were paralyzed due to an accident.
Both sets of people had returned to the same level of happiness after the initial joy or shock. The lottery winners had blown all their money, while the injured had learned to accept their new lives. Though the change was not easy to admit, they had realized that they had to live with it.
Takeaway from the hedonic treadmill
Is there anything you can do to avoid the effects of the hedonic treadmill? Unfortunately, not much. What you can do is be more mindful after your actions and experiences. You won’t have a lot of success if you try to alter your perceived level of happiness.
The best you can do to stop a hedonic treadmill is improve your mindfulness. Here are 5 takeaways that can help you with your self-awareness and decisions.
1. Your circumstances don’t define your happiness
No matter how fantastic or miserable your current situation is, it doesn’t define your happiness. Yes, your circumstances make you flare your chest in pride or curl into a ball due to disappointment, but such feelings do not last long.
Over time, your benchmark for happiness, the desire for growth, or resilience to discomfort will increase as shown below. Whether the process occurs gradually or quickly depends on your personality, state of mind, and choice.
2. Make time for your happiness goals in the present
Have you set a future target for yourself to experience pleasure or pursue an activity you enjoy? Most people postpone such goals forever. I am a culprit of such plans myself.
Here are some examples:
- After I get a hike, I will work lesser and go on regular vacations
- When I have ten million dollars, I will start helping the poor
- Once I have a high paying job, I will learn to play the guitar
When you achieve the first part of the goal, you’ll aim for a more significant target. You’ll not spend the time and money as you have planned right now.
If you want to go on a holiday, learn a musical instrument, or help the needy, start right now. If you can’t make up your mind today, the chances of making that change in the future are quite slim.
3. Space your pleasures
By reading the article so far, you have understood that any satisfaction loses its charm after a while. Therefore, try to space out your pleasures.
If you had a busy schedule for years, do not go on a vacation for 3 months straight. If you do, you will only get bored. Instead, take a holiday for a couple of weeks, get back to work, and plan another after a few months.
The same goes for partying. If you decide to take a break from regular life and immerse yourself in alcohol for a whole week, you’ll resent cocktails for many days that follow.
Allow yourself time between activities you enjoy. That’s when you will relish the flavor of the experience and look forward to it the next time.
4. Care about those dear to you
Due to the mounting pressure of work these days, people put in more hours to compensate and grow. Unfortunately, the extra effort required eats into the time you spend with your loved ones. Evenings with family become smaller, and the weekend plans with your partner get shorter.
While your growth is an essential factor in life, do not overlook the toll it takes on your relationships and loved ones. Your life is not only about you but also those around you.
5. Enjoy the little moments
Do not merely look at life from the perspective of the future. Take a moment to enjoy the pleasure of the present. Have a hearty laugh at jokes, enjoy the taste of your dinner, and feel the moment during a hug.
Don’t let your plans for a future pleasure make your present happiness irrelevant.
Your life will be a rollercoaster ride where the hedonic treadmill balances your emotions. Due to this effect, you will remain motivated to chase new goals or come out of a rut during obstacles. But it would be best if you watched out. If you do not pay enough attention to how it impacts your life, you can get entangled in endless goals or stuck in negative emotions for eternity.
Happiness is a choice, and only you can decide how contented you are.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.