The Hedonic Treadmill – Why Stuff Won’t Make You Happier
Recently I came across the idea of the Hedonic Treadmill in the fantastic book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better AFTER 50 by Jonathan Rauch. This wasn’t a phrase that I’d heard of before but have experienced numerous times in my life.
I occasionally get ideas for topics to write on through other personal finance blogs for healthcare professionals such as the BIG 3:
I noticed that all of them have referenced this idea in past articles. You may not be too familiar with the hedonic treadmill as well but….I guarantee that you’ve experienced it (good and bad) at some point in your life events. Heck, you may be going through it as we speak.
Not sure? Let’s explain what it is and then get into specifics.
What exactly is the Hedonic Treadmill Theory?
According to Wikipedia,
The hedonic treadmill is the tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite changes in fortune or the achievement of major goals. As a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.
Now I know what you might be thinking. No, this doesn’t mean that being poor is a barrel full of monkeys or that making more money doesn’t make anyone happier in the long-term. Who wouldn’t be excited about winning the lottery, right?
In general, on average, increasing wealth (especially past the point where all your basic needs are met) doesn’t make people nearly as happy as they thought it would.
What about stuff?
Have you ever gotten excited over the thought of acquiring something such as a new car, boat, pair of shoes or a bigger house?
It seems like dreaming of the day that you get this “stuff” is going to make us so happy, right?
What happens when you finally get what you want? How long does that happiness last before you eventually return to normal? Not too long right? We buy the new truck and then realize our neighbor bought a nicer one even though you THOUGHT yours couldn’t be topped. Ugh!
How about the new house you just know is going to make you happy? You move into the brand spanking new 4,000 sq foot beauty to find out that your best friend just one upped you with a 5,500 sq ft lake front home. Oh to be on the water….
This is the power of adaptation. The new wears off quickly and we move on to wanting something else which we think is going to make us happier and bring about more life satisfaction.
Why do we go through this phase of negative emotions and positive emotions happiness cycle? This has been on my mind for sometime now and decided to do some research to find out more.
Happiness Set Point
How much of our happiness is under our control?
The happiness or hedonic set point is the general baseline level of happiness a person experiences over their lifetime.
If that’s the case, then how much of our happiness is really under our control?
To help answer that question, let’s look at the research by Sonja Lyubomirsky.
She examined this set-point and came up with a specific percentage: 40%
She also determined the following:
50% of our happiness set-point is due to genetics (ie personality traits)
10% is affected primarily by circumstances such as:
- where we are born
- our parents
Now that we know that 60% (50% + 10%) is from genetics and circumstances, this leaves 40% that is subject to our influence, which is a significant portion.
One of the the most cited papers about this subject was a study titled “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative?” published in 1978 by Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman. They set out to determine how people adapted to happiness. Here’s what they found:
They interviewed three groups of people:
- lottery winners
- paralyzed accident victims
- control group
Their findings showed, as you might expect, the lottery winners were fired up immediately after their win.
I don’t know about you, but I’d be quite the happy lad holding a check for an extra million or so.
But on the flip side, the paralyzed accident victims were extremely ticked off. Makes sense.
Here’s the kicker…within ONLY two months, both groups had returned back to their average level of happiness.
Do what? That can’t be! How can something like that even remotely happen?
Think about it. Whenever someone moves up to a new level of material convenience, that person loses the ability to enjoy the things he previously thought were cool.
Take a look at some of the lottery winners that are interviewed on TV. Many are lower to middle class folks.
To them BEFORE hitting the jackpot, a cold brew after a long, hot day working at the mill was once a great treat but AFTER the win he quits the job and takes up drinking expensive cognac from water that drips off the Swiss Alps, poured by a personal butler.
Both serve the same purpose, and the pleasure is about the same.
The Expectations Trap
The book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better AFTER 50 sums it up nicely for me. Jonathan Haidt, an author interviewed in the book, uses elephants to help us understand.
He states that when a small child rides an elephant, it could kind of prick it to make it go the way he wants it to go only if the elephant had NO plans of his own.
If the elephant did have its own plans, the rider could do nothing to change the elephants’s direction.
The elephant is like the mind’s many automatic, involuntary processes. These are like a system of cognitive shortcuts allowing us to function in everyday life, because we don’t have enough time or capacity to think through every decision from scratch.
For instance, when we see something on our dinner plate that looks green, slimy & disgusting, we automatically say, “Yuck!” This spares us the trouble of having to think through if we should try it because it’s unfamiliar and potentially hazardous.
The rider is portrayed as the mind’s controlled, voluntary processes. These are the ones that take time and we can control them more easily.
The Progress Principle
Haidt claims that the elephant’s mission is NOT to make us feel satisfied with what we accomplish. It was created by evolution to complete the mission. And guess what? Happiness is NOT the goal of our mission. Hmmmmm.
The progress principle is something that Haidt also references in the book. Think about this. In our lives we set many goals such as:
- finding a good mate
- accumulating resources
- raising children
The mental reward for success comes mainly NOT when we meet one of these large goals, but instead, when we take some short-term positive step towards it (we receive a shot of feel-good dopamine). The elephant feels pleasure when it takes this step usually seconds (not minutes) after the behavior.
In other words, when it comes to the pursuit of our goals, it really is the journey that counts, NOT the destination.
Whoa. Now I know that whenever I reached any goal I set for myself, I’m no more happier achieving it than I am taking steps along the way to get to the end result.
Bottom line: The progress principle: “Pleasure comes more from making progress towards goals than from achieving them.”
The Adaptation Principle
Once our elephants reaches it’s goal, why aren’t we any happier for very long? This is the where the adaptation principle aka hedonic principle steps in.
Haidt states, “We don’t just habituate, we re-calibrate. We create for ourselves a world of targets, and each time we hit one we replace it with another. We keep aiming higher after a string of success, but we aim lower have a massive setback.”
A few years ago I watched Tom Brady interviewed shortly after winning a Super Bowl. He was asked how it feels that he won not only the Super Bowl but was also awarded the Most Valuable Player. He told the reporter that it felt good, but, there had to be more to life than this.
Seems like we now know where he’s coming from.
Whatever happens to us, more than likely we’re going to adapt to it, but you don’t realize initially that you will. This is the reason why both the lottery winners and paraplegics both returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.
Now from the elephant’s point of view, this constant recalibration keeps us up to date of changes in our environment but from the rider’s view point, it’s not so good. He’s trying to appreciate the goals that he accomplished (wants to stay and be happy.)
In the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you. This is the basis of the hedonic treadmill. We continue to strive, all the while doing things that help us win at the game of life.
We are always wanting more than we have, we run and run just like a hamster on a wheel.
The elephant was shaped by natural selection to win. It cares more about prestige than about happiness. It will pursue its evolutionary goals even when greater happiness can be found elsewhere.
“If everyone is chasing the same limited amount of prestige“, Haidt claims, “then we are all stuck in a zero-sum game, a world in which rising wealth does NOT bring rising happiness.”
Examples of the Hedonic Treadmill
After reading the book, I have come to understand my own personal struggles with hedonic adapation after hitting two MAJOR goals:
- Becoming Debt-Free
- Obtaining a seven-figure net worth
I spent years and years writing, planning and doing everything I could to achieve these goals. I couldn’t wait until I reached them as I knew, deep down, everything was going to be gravy afterwards.
Spoiler alert: If you too are shooting for large goals such as the ones I set for myself and don’t want to know how it feels after about a week of obtaining them….then I suggest you cover up this next sentence before moving on:
After roughly a week after achieving my goals, I felt, drum roll please, (this is where you should skip ahead), exactly the same as I was BEFORE accomplishing them.
You’re life is not going to be over and complete after you hit what you’re aiming for. Just ask Tom Brady.
Your built in “elephant” was not made that way. He’s NOT made to make us miserable but instead, he’s designed to MOTIVATE us to be successful.”
How to become happier
If people become accustomed to anything positive that happens to them, then how can they ever become happier?
Now that you’ve read the research that happiness is short lived…it’s time to make a choice. Are you going to continue to spend your time, energy and hard-earned money on what science proves to be an ineffective short adrenaline rush from buying stuff?
Are you finally going to get off the hedonic treamill?
Or, would you rather put that same energy, time and money into doing something that creates far more lasting happiness?
According to Mr. Money Mustache, (MMM), the biggest factors influencing human happiness include:
- meaningful work (with lots of autonomy, low stress, and low fear of losing your job)
- private life
- philosophy of life
Seems fairly simple right?
The (retire early) movement is becoming more and more popular. I don’t know about you, but I never want to fully retire. After about 4-5 days of not working, Dr. Debt Free starts to get stir crazy (ask Mrs. Debt Free!)
Work creates balance in my life. I have a reason and set time to wake up each morning and it provides structure (a schedule) to my day.
If you take the principles that I’ve been teaching (work hard early in your career, keep expenses super low, save as much as possible to get that money working for you), then you can have the option of deciding what type of work you really enjoy doing.
By gaining financial independence, you will naturally turn more to helping others, bonding with your own family and friends and community, and you’ll have the extra time and the reduced stress levels allowing you to take better care of your health.
I’ve made it a point, from day one in my practice, to have balance in my life. What’s the point in having wealth without health? I know too many people that are forced to retire rather wealthy but in such poor health, they can’t enjoy much of it.
By freedom, MMM is talking about freedom from being a slave to debt and creditors.
Proverbs 22:7 “The rich rules over the poor, And the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.”
Romans 13:8 “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”
If you want real, lasting happiness, getting rid of debt and breaking free from an addictive high consumption lifestyle is a great place to start.
Byron Katie, author of the “The Work” sums up why and how our thoughts can sometimes cause our suffering or our happiness. Here is a clip of her interview with Oprah where she discusses more about her teachings.
She states we should:
- reflect on things that we really want to do
- focus on people and activities we really enjoy
- learn by revisiting our negative thoughts
- focus on the present moment
These are the keys along the road to happiness.
It seems like people are writing more books and doing more research trying to figure out what will make humans happy instead of focusing on the happiness they already have.
Similarly, this is like focusing all your energy on making more money, without giving any thought to what you’ll do with it once you get it.
The key to wealth, like the key to happiness, is to not only look for new opportunities, but to make the most of the ones you’ve been given.
Further Reading on the hedonic treadmill:
- What is Hedonic Adaptation and How Can it Turn You Into a Sucka? by Mr. Money Mustache
- The Hedonic Treadmill – If Only Happiness Were As Easy As Marriage, a Big House, and Kids by Happier Human
- Running on The Hedonic Treadmill by The Simple Dollar
- The Hedonic Treadmill: From Overconsumption to Minimalism by Virginia Counseling
- Make Your Life Upgrade Proof by The Happy Philosopher
- When the Hedonic Treadmill hits Ludicrous Speed by PoF