The ‘Hedonic Treadmill’
Let’s assume that you believe buying a fancy new car will make you happy. In the short term, it might: for the first week or so, you’ll probably experience great pleasure when you drive. Over time, however, your joy will fade, a phenomenon psychologists call hedonic adaptation. Before long, your new car will blend into your surroundings, and your mind will fixate on something else to pursue in the quest for happiness.
This cycle is called the Hedonic Treadmill: we pursue pleasurable things because we think they’ll make us happy. When we finally achieve or acquire what we’re seeking, we adapt to our success in a very short period of time, and our success no longer gives us pleasure. As a result, we begin seeking something new, and the cycle repeats.
The Hedonic Treadmill explains why people who achieve wealth, status, and fame continue to seek more. Since we’re not satisfied with what we have for very long, it’s only a matter of time before we fixate on something else to achieve or possess.
The Hedonic Treadmill is a major problem if you’d like to experience a feeling of success or achievement for an extended period of time. It’s possible to work hard, invest, sacrifice, and push your way to the top of your field, only to find yourself restless and despondent. You’d be surprised at how many “successful” people aren’t happy with their lives, even after they’ve achieved everything they set out to do.
Short-circuiting the Hedonic Treadmill is tricky: it’s a side effect of Caveman Syndrome. There are, however, a few things we can focus on that tend to lead to sustained levels of life satisfaction. Based on the available research, here are five priorities that will contribute to your long-term happiness in a way that minimizes hedonic adaptation:
1. Work to make “enough” money.
Money contributes to happiness, but only to a certain point. According to a study by Daniel Kahneman and Angus Deaton, money has a positive correlation with reported levels of happiness up to an annual income of approximately $75,000 USD per year, which represents an income in the top third of US households in 2008-2009, the years of the study. This level of income is very achievable: average household income in the study was $71,500.
Once you have enough money to cover the necessities and a few luxuries, you reach a point of Diminishing Returns: every $1 you earn doesn’t provide the same amount of utility. Beyond the point of Diminishing Returns, having more money doesn’t increase happiness, and may actually decrease it by becoming a source of stress and worry. (For examples of how money can decrease happiness, read Fables of Fortune: What Rich People Have That You Don’t Want by Richard Watts.)
Knowing your monetary point of Diminishing Returns is useful: by consciously limiting your consumption beyond a certain point and establishing long-term savings, you can reap the benefits of financial security and Resiliencewithout spending every waking moment working to pay for pleasures you’ll adapt to in less than a month.
As a general rule: experiences contribute more to happiness than material goods. Beyond the point where your needs are met, you’ll get a higher emotional return for your dollar by traveling with people you like than by purchasing an expensive luxury item.
2. Focus on improving your health and energy.
Health is a major contributing factor to happiness: when you feel great, you’re more likely to feel happy. The converse is also true: when you feel ill, you tend to experience less pleasure, enjoyment, and life satisfaction.
Experimenting with ways to improve your typical level of health and energy can result in huge improvements in your quality of life. Remember, the human body has Performance Requirements: food, exercise, and rest are not optional. If you make it a priority to give your body what it needs to thrive, you’ll reap the rewards over the years to come.
3. Spend time with people you enjoy.
One of the single biggest predictors of happiness is the amount of time you spend with people you enjoy: family, friends, and like-minded acquaintances. The context and environment are less important than the people you spend time with.
Different people need different levels of social contact to feel happy. Extroverted people feel energized by social contact, and need to be around others on a regular basis. Introverted people (like me) can go days or weeks with little social contact, and generally get their energy from spending time alone. Still, introverted people benefit from spending time with people they like: regular social time with friends is highly correlated with major sustained increases in life satisfaction. Long meals and trips with friends are a great use of time
According to Dr. George Vaillant, director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development (the longest-running longitudinal study of mental health), the results of the study boil down to this: “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.”
4. Remove chronic annoyances.
There are many things in life that can wear on your nerves. Examining ways to reduce or eliminate chronic stresses or annoyances can generate signifiant improvements in life satisfaction.
If you find driving in rush hour traffic stressful, moving closer to work is a good solution. If you don’t like your current job, start looking for another. If you find working with a particular customer annoying, fire them. If you always forget to pack your laptop’s power cable when you travel, buy a second cable that stays in your travel bag. By finding simple ways to remove unnecessary stress and frustration, you’ll spend less time and energy feeling bad, and more time feeling good.
5. Pursue a new challenge.
Most people assume retirees feel overjoyed, but that’s often not the case. It’s common for people to derive a sense of purpose and enjoyment from their work, and retirees can feel empty and lost when their former career is no longer a priority. Left unresolved, this sense of loss can spiral into depression.
The solution is to take on an exciting new challenge. This challenge can be anything: acquiring a new skill, completing a big project, or pursuing a major accomplishment. Whether it’s learning a new language, playing an instrument, building something from scratch, or completing a marathon, striving for new achievement is the best way to experience happiness and growth over long periods of time.
Focusing on experiences over material goods goes a long way if you want to step off the Hedonic Treadmill. In the immortal words of Charles Kingsley, a 19th century historian and clergyman: “We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.”