Understanding the Hedonic Treadmill – Can We Never Be Happy?

“Some go fishing all their lives without realizing it’s not fish they are after” – Henry David Thoreau

Do you ever get a feeling that you will never quite be happy? That you are constantly running on a treadmill and never really going nowhere?

Well you’re probably not alone. In fact this is probably the feeling that is most worthy of the title ‘the human condition’. All of us you see are united by a feeling of mild disappointment, or slight dissatisfaction. All of us are constantly reaching for things that are just out of grasp or that aren’t even clearly defined. Except maybe the Dalai Lama…

This is what is known as ‘the hedonic treadmill’ or ‘hedonic adaptation’ and it might just be one of the more important aspects of our psychology.

What Is the Hedonic Treadmill?

The hedonic treadmill is described as the tendency that we as humans have to quickly return to a state of happiness, regardless of the positive or negative changes that might occur in our lives. While the term ‘happiness’ was originally used when the idea was put forward by Brickman and Campbell, it has later taken on a slightly more sinister term. In the late 1990s, psychologist Michael Eysenck adapted the term to better fit the definition most of us will know today. That is to say that we revert to a state of ‘relative happiness’, which is nevertheless marred by a slight dissatisfaction and the knowledge that things could be better.

Despite the term being relatively recent, similar concepts have been used throughout history. A good example is the quote ‘desire hath no rest’ from Robert Burton’s 1621 Anatomy of Melancholy.

The idea then, is that no matter what happens for better or worse, you’re likely to remain feeling about as happy/dissatisfied as you are now. If a natural disaster destroyed your home and your family, then you would mourn and be distraught and you would likely be unable to return to your current status and luxury. Nevertheless, given time you would adapt to your new situation with new loved ones and new possessions and you would feel similarly about those as you did about your old ones. Even if you found yourself destitute and living on the street, you would develop routines and habits that gave you solace and you would learn to take more pleasure in the smaller things like the occasional mug of hot tea. And you would keep hoping that someday things would get better.

Conversely though, if you were to win the lottery tomorrow and to buy yourself a private island, you would probably find you actually weren’t that much happier than you are today. You might not have the stress of work but you’d still get bored, you’d still get ill and you’d still have arguments with your partner. You might wish that you were just a little more rich, or perhaps that you had become rich just a little younger…

If this sounds unrealistic, then consider a study by Brickman & Campbell looking at 22 lottery winners and 29 paraplegics. In the study both groups were interviewed several years after their life-changing events and both groups reported being roughly as happy as they were to begin with.

In other words, we appear to have a state of ’emotional homeostasis’ which is just south of ‘content’ but never too depressed.

The Purpose of the Hedonic Treadmill

While it might sound a little depressing to think that our state of happiness is never likely to change, it does make sense from an evolutionary perspective and in some ways could be considered comforting.

The main obvious advantage to being constantly ‘minorly dissatisfied’, is that it provides us with motivation to keep striving. If ever we were completely contented to our lot in life, it would leave us with no real motivation for trying to improve ourselves or trying to improve our situations.

Likewise, if we were to become too depressed by a situation, then this would prevent us from being able to get on with our lives as normal. People are able to behave surprisingly normally in all kinds of situations and this is what gives us the best chance of getting out of those circumstances. And that’s quite nice to know too – that no matter what, you should be able to remain predominantly happy.

Implications and Criticisms

Interestingly, some groups of ‘transhumanists’ (people who advocate the use of technology in order to improve the human condition), believe that we can and should one day use chemical intervention to try and remove any malcontent and to induce a permanent state of ‘chemical bliss’. The biggest criticism of this though is that we need the hedonic treadmill in order to motivate us. If you were in a constant state of bliss no matter what, then what motivation would you have to do anything?

Others meanwhile disagree with the idea that the hedonic treadmill should be a ‘necessity’, or even that it exists at all. Despite some studies that support the existence of a hedonic treadmill, others find the theory wanting. A study by Lucas, Clark, Georgellis & Diener in 2006 for instance found that levels of happiness could be significantly changed by events such as marriage or layoffs. In general, they also found that negative life events had a larger impact on happiness than positive ones.

If the hedonic treadmill were to exist to a great level, this might even render psychological interventions meaningless. If we are always going to return to the same level of happiness, then what need is there for therapy or for tools like cognitive behavioral therapy? Whole industries are built around the idea that we can change our mental health through the use of therapy and psychological tools like cognitive behavioral therapy.

Overall, it’s likely that something akin to the hedonic treadmill is at play under normal circumstances and that this might well be a necessary aspect of psychology. Nevertheless though, that isn’t to say that exceptional circumstances or the right mental tools can’t also make a big difference.

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