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Hedonic Treadmill


The hedonic treadmill is the idea that your happiness tends to converge to the same point, regardless of circumstances. Your income may double or triple, for instance – you may win the lottery, or lose a limb – yet your overall level of happiness will not budge much.

As incredible as it sounds, studies have born it out, and psychologists have even proposed a mechanism. Your happiness is homeostatic, a word borrowed from biology which means it tends towards a stable, constant state. Certain episodes may temporarily push you out of it – depression, say, or seriously good news – but the bump is small, and soon disappears. Then, it’s back to your set point – wherever that is.

I’ve been thinking of that in the context of a career. Past a certain point, it seems that changes really just swap out your social circle. You can afford to move into different kinds of spaces, with different socioeconomic markers and recreational pursuits. But in terms of the absolute, quantified ‘happiness’ level? It’s about the same.

Another implication is that, once your happiness baseline gets reset at the same point but with additional conditions (since this is what resetting to a baseline means – the level doesn’t change, while conditions do, even if they’re improving), it now takes ‘more’ to make you happy.

I feel like I’ve seen this in action among friends, vastly improved conditions but the same level of dissatisfaction (if that is where your happiness was before), and, practically speaking, a higher bar for continued happiness. Meaning that, if something comes along to rock the boat, it can be emotionally catastrophic, if the last reset made the previous high-achieving level just barely enough.

It’s easy to notice this with, say, food. I’ll be in a bad mood, and want to eat something. Shortly after that, though, that food will bring me back to where I was before my mood – my natural equilibrium – and the ‘advantage’ won’t feel like an advantage as much as the absence of a deficiency. In other words, back to equilibrium.

If you accept the idea that the ‘hedonic treadmill’ is real and that you are, in a sense, on it, then ways to ‘beat’ the treadmill become more valuable. This is a reason to prefer systemic solutions, methods which work at a deeper, more fundamental/mental level to tilt the scale, instead of dropping items on it which it will move to rebalance.

Exercise does this, in that it alters the physical base of your body, and its happiness; meditation does also, to the extent that it lays bare the mechanism of your happiness, and then gives you tools to ‘operate’ on it.

Whichever solution you choose, though, you want to move in the direction of deep inner changes, instead of one-off bonuses which homeostasis pulls back to the baseline.


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