The hedonic treadmill and tips on how to soar off

The hedonistic treadmill is a metaphor that explains why happiness is running out, why it is stressful to keep up with the Joneses, and how to set more rewarding goals.

Mark Lambert

Ever heard of the hedonic treadmill? No, it’s not the newest or greatest, Peloton cardio machine. It’s a behavioral psychology metaphor, and it may provide useful insights into your happiness and how to strike a healthy work-life balance. But before we get to metaphorical treadmills, let’s talk about baked goods.

Imagine the perfect biscuit.

Think how strange it is that a simple convergence of flour, eggs, and sugar can bring so much satisfaction. Through a miracle of biochemistry, we humans can miraculously turn a Frisbee-shaped globe of sticky ingredients into sheer happiness – and yes, a tiny layer of extra body fat, but let’s not spoil things.

But have you noticed how quickly happiness fades? Seems a bit unfair doesn’t it?

If you eat the same cookie every day, your enjoyment will likely wear off. When the routine kicks in, you’d need to eat more cookies or find some other high-calorie way to improve the stake.

Research tells us that the fleeting nature of simple happiness is inherent in the human condition and is the result of a psychological process known as hedonic adjustment, which is colloquially known as the “hedonic treadmill”. Let’s take a closer look at happiness and how jumping off the “pursuit of happiness” treadmill can be the most fulfilling decision you have ever made.

What is hedonic adjustment?

First, let’s remove the slang word. Hedonic means “to relate to pleasant sensations”. Good food, the endorphin rush, getting a shiny new device, the guilty outburst of happiness when you buy new shoes – these are all examples of hedonic happiness.

Hedonic adaptation refers to the annoying tendency of our species to get used to this type of enjoyment in a very short time. We’re hardwired to quickly return to a “standard” 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 quickly, so let’s go find the next prize … and the next … then the next. You have the idea. It’s an endless unsatisfactory loop of short-term gratification followed by more struggle for the same type of experience.

But is that important? After all, a literal treadmill is still good cardio. Perhaps this metaphorical invention we are on isn’t all that bad?

The emotional and psychological fallout

Let’s break down the effects 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 repetitive pattern of expectation and disappointment is deeply demotivating and will ultimately not make you ready to face new challenges.
  • Exhaustion: This treadmill is endless. As fleeting luck fades and another shiny prize appears on the horizon, a hedonistic lucky junkie has no choice but to pick up the pace and keep going.
  • Inefficiency: Short-term happiness goals give you a skewed view of what success looks and feels like. A life in search of easy gains can all too easily lead to hesitant thinking. You know the deal: I have this important job to do, but first I have to sharpen those shockingly blunt pencils.

How to stay away from the hedonic treadmill

We have hopefully found that the hedonistic treadmill can have some pretty damaging effects on your emotional and financial well-being if you let it rule your life. The obvious next question is whether it is possible to jump off. And if so, how?

  • Question why: If you are heading towards a milestone that you cannot see or define, you will never get there. Establish a list of accountability goals and review your progress against these goals.
  • Focus your consumption: Keeping up with the Joneses is a dead end and not for what you may think. Sure, you’ve just added a whole bunch of extra expenses to your life as you set your goals by what other people do. But you’ll also end up consuming things that aren’t even particularly important to you. Spending consciously isn’t about saying no to cool things because it costs too much. It’s about choosing only the things or experiences that will change your life for the better. Focus your resources on what is important to you and ignore the rest.
  • Buy your time back: Instead of buying property, consider investing some of your disposable income in time-saving services. Whether it’s takeout, house cleaning, dog walking, or one of a thousand useful services, every minute you buy for yourself this way can be invested in hobbies, family time, or learning goals that will bring lasting rewards. Learn more from Ramit How to Buy Your Time Back (Hint: Spend Money).
  • Invest in your health: One of the most important predictors of your personal happiness is your physical well-being. By addressing the work-life balance and converting your sense of reward into fitness and health results, you are embarking on a path to long-term happiness.
  • Spin these hedonic treats: We all have simple goodies that we enjoy and there is nothing wrong with that! But instead of allowing chocolate donut purchases or computer games to become a weekly phenomenon, use them sparingly and mix them frequently. This is the way to achieve hedonic balance and keep things fresh.

It is important to take care of yourself! Remember, many of us are pushing against deeply wired impulses.

What all of this means for your work-life balance

As you set work goals, pay attention to how your luck is working. Are you setting a number of hedonic milestones that never fully deliver on their promise? Or do you define your success by goals that can have a lasting effect?

The other part of the work-life puzzle is realizing that the pursuit of happiness is not frivolous or wrong. What better reason to broaden your work horizons than knowing that all this hard work enables you to spend wasteful sums on things that you know you will love – that will enrich your life? The trick is to be mindful of spending money, carefully choosing the rewards that are worth the effort, and mercilessly weeding out the rest.

Real happiness is not an endless treadmill. Chasing prices that will never really satisfy you is a self-imposed laboratory experiment in vain. But you won’t find happiness in eternal frugality either! This is just a different type of treadmill with fewer payouts. You get off the hedonistic treadmill of life when you make a conscious choice to chase the things that really enrich your life, be it a family vacation, spending more time with the kids, or whatever your figurative boat is floating on – Yes, even a real, literal boat.

And best of all, caring more about happiness? You can finally stop running for the sake of yourself.

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