Financial Literacy

The Hedonic Treadmill (& how to jump off)

The hedonic treadmill is a metaphor that helps explain why happiness fades, why keeping up with the Joneses is exhausting, and how to set more rewarding goals.

Ever heard of the hedonic treadmill? Nope, it’s not the latest and greatest Peloton cardio contraption. It’s a metaphor from behavioral psychology, and it might just offer up some useful insights on your happiness, and how to build a healthy work-life balance. But before we get to metaphorical treadmills, let’s talk about baked goods.

Picture the perfect cookie.

Consider how weird it is that a simple convergence of flour, eggs, and sugar can bring so much contentment. Through some miracle of biochemistry we humans can miraculously transform a frisbee-shaped glob of gooey ingredients into pure happiness — and yes, a tiny layer of extra body fat, but let’s not spoil things.

But have you noticed how quickly happiness like this fades? It seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it?

If you ate that same cookie every day, your enjoyment would likely diminish. As routine set in, to get the same burst of happiness you’d have to eat more cookies or find some other calorie-rich way to up the ante.

The research tells us that the fleeting nature of simple happiness is inherent to the human condition, and the result of a psychological process called hedonic adaptation, colloquially referred to as the “hedonic treadmill.” Let’s take a closer look at happiness and how jumping off the “pursuit of happiness treadmill” may well be the most fulfilling decision you ever make.

What Is Hedonic Adaptation?

First, let’s get the jargon word squared away. Hedonic means “relating to pleasant sensations.” Good food, the endorphin rush of acquiring a shiny new gadget, the guilty burst of happiness when you lash out and buy new shoes — these are all examples of hedonic happiness.

Hedonic adaptation refers to our species’ annoying tendency to become accustomed to these kinds of enjoyments in a very short timeframe. We’re hardwired to rapidly return to a “default” state of happiness. Thanks for that, evolution.

The concept of a hedonic treadmill is all about what happens next. You get the treat you crave, it wears off way too fast, so off we go in search of the next prize … and the next one … then the next. You get the idea. It’s an endless unsatisfactory loop of short-term gratification followed by more struggle for the same kind of experience.

But does it matter? After all, a literal treadmill is still good cardio. Maybe this metaphorical contraption we find ourselves on isn’t all that bad?

The Emotional and Psychological Fallout

Let’s break down the implications of our endless hedonic restlessness. And spoilers … it’s not great.

  • Disappointment: Imagine the excitement of opening a treasure chest followed by the disappointment of discovering half a moldy Snickers and a McHappy meal voucher. A repeating pattern of expectation and disappointment is deeply demotivating, and will eventually leave you unwilling to tackle new challenges.
  • Exhaustion: This treadmill is endless. As one fleeting happiness fades and another gleaming prize appears on the horizon, a hedonic happiness junky has little choice but to pick up their pace and keep running.
  • Inefficiency: Short-term happiness goals give you a skewed view of what success looks and feels like. A life in pursuit of easy gains can all too easily lead to a procrastination mindset. You know the deal: I have this important work to do, but first I must sharpen these shockingly blunt pencils.

How to stay off the hedonic treadmill

We’ve hopefully established that the hedonic treadmill can have some pretty damaging implications for your emotional and financial well-being if you let it rule your life. The obvious next question is, is it possible to jump off? And if so, how?

  • Ask why: If you’re running toward a milestone you can’t see or define, you’ll never get there. Set a list of accountability goals and check your progress against them.
  • Focus your consumption: Keeping up with the Joneses is a dead-end, and not for the reason you might think. Sure you’ve just added a whole bunch of additional spending to your life if you set your goals by what other people are doing. But you’ll also end up consuming stuff you don’t even particularly care about. Conscious spending is not about saying no to cool stuff because it costs too much. It’s about choosing only the things or experiences that’ll change your life for the better. Focus your resources on what matters to you, and ignore the rest.
  • Buy back your time: Instead of buying possessions, consider investing some of your disposable income in time-saving services. Whether it’s takeout, house cleaning, dog walking, or any of a thousand useful services, every minute you buy for yourself this way can be invested into those hobbies, family time, or learning goals that yield lasting rewards. Learn more from Ramit on How to Buy Back Your Time (Hint: Spend Money).
  • Invest in your health: One of the main predictors of your personal happiness is your physical well-being. By addressing work-life balance and channeling your sense of reward into fitness and health outcomes, you set yourself on a path to long-term happiness.
  • Rotate those hedonic treats: We all have simple treats we enjoy, and there’s nothing wrong with that! But instead of allowing that chocolate donut or computer game purchase to become a weekly phenomenon, use them sparingly and mix it up frequently. This way you gain some hedonic equilibrium and keep things fresh.

It’s important to go easy on yourself! Remember that many of us are pushing against deeply hardwired impulses.

What this all means for your work-life balance

As you set work goals, be mindful of how your happiness works. Are you setting a succession of hedonic milestones that never fully deliver on their promise? Or are you defining your success by goals that can deliver a lasting impact?

The other part of the work-life puzzle though is to recognize that pursuing happiness isn’t frivolous or wrong. What better reason to push out your work horizons than the knowledge that all that hard work will allow you to spend lavish sums on things you know you’ll love — that’ll enrich your life? The trick is to spend consciously, to carefully choose those rewards that’ll make the effort worthwhile, and to mercilessly cull out the rest.

Real happiness isn’t an endless treadmill. Pursuing prizes that’ll never truly satisfy you is a self-inflicted lab experiment in futility. But you’re not going to find happiness in perpetual frugality either! That’s just another kind of treadmill with fewer payoffs. You step off life’s hedonic treadmill when you consciously choose to chase after those things that’ll genuinely enrich your life, whether a family vacation, more time with the kids, or whatever floats your figurative boat — yes, even an actual, literal boat.

And the best thing from getting more mindful about happiness? You can finally stop running for its own sake.  

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