Life potentials The Hedonic Treadmill

Each time we advance towards a desired state, we quickly get used to the new terrain, and thus have no more satisfaction there than we did in the previous location. As a result, we work hard at running, but never get anywhere.

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The Hedonic Treadmill: Why Happiness Can Slip Out of Reach

Here's the problem: We do all the things to create a happy life for ourselves, but somehow… we are unable to grow our level of happiness. Like rats in a treadmill we stay exactly where we are.

You recognise this? It's known as The Hedonic Treadmill and is one of the implications of the Adaptation Effect.

The reason for this is what Positive Psychology calls The Hedonic or Happiness Treadmill. This theory states that we do not maintain a high level of happiness for an extended period, because we adapt to the good things just as quickly, and we start taking them for granted. Our expectations and standards rise along with the situation, and we reach for better things as we achieve and acquire more. Until we find ourselves back to the same emotional state we were before.

An example is when you get promoted. This is a life event that will raise your self-esteem and give you a sense of accomplishment. You’re happy. You can buy more things. You can finally afford some luxuries. But then, with your new income, other things are now within your view. You want a better car, a bigger TV, a more luxurious vacation. Your needs change, and until you satisfy these new needs, you will feel dissatisfaction, and the elation you felt when you were promoted will fade away.

The Happiness Set Point

There is an initial spike in our happiness level when good things happen to us, and a drop when we experience a sad event. Our happiness or sadness will rise and fall but these feelings will dissipate and you will go back to the level of happiness you were at before. This is referred to as the Happiness Set Point. Time does heal all wounds, and happiness is fleeting.

In Positive Psychology, the Happiness Set Point has gained a lot of interest. This theory shows that our long term happiness is not affected permanently by major life events. You can look at the happiness set point as a thermometer: the temperature can go up or down, but it eventually goes back to normal – the set point. It was explained that this is the reason why many of us find happiness so elusive.

Proof of The Hedonic Treadmill at Work

Economist, Richard Easterlin, conducted a social survey of the American population, with participants from all walks of life. They were asked to examine a list of the things people usually invest in, such as a house, a car, appliances, vacations, luxuries, and the like.

To start the survey, they were asked to check the items that they think would contribute to a good life – and to indicate which of them they already owned.

16 years later, they repeated the survey on the same group of people.

The result showed that through their adult lives, they progressed from owning a few of the big-ticket items, to owning several. But the study also showed that their ‘idea’ of what constitutes a good life changed as time passed. In early adulthood, a car, a house and a good TV was satisfactory. But later on, a vacation home was added to their ideal life, maybe an around the world cruise.

The point is, over the last 16 years, they went from owning 1.7 items to 3.1. Their idea of a good life changed from owning 4.4 items to 5.6. They were always short of 2 items to attain their ideal – the same situation they were in at the start of the survey. This one step forward, two steps back scenario happens throughout the course of most people’s lives, making happiness and life satisfaction an elusive goal – always out of reach.

This survey clearly shows, that on average, the accumulation of material things has no impact to long term, sustainable happiness.

To achieve true happiness in life, we need to develop long term sources of happiness and satisfaction.

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“The reality of life is that your perceptions – right or wrong – influence everything else you do. When you get a proper perspective of your perceptions, you may be surprised how many other things fall into place.” —Roger W. Birkman, Ph.D.


Positive Psychology Program: The Hedonic Treadmill, Happiness Throughout a Lifetime

Wikipedia: Hedonic Treadmill

Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile

Read about how you can escape the hedonic treadmill in the book “Happiness - the science behind your smile” by Professor of Behavioural Science Daniel Nettle.

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