“Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune”
The Hedonic treadmill is a very fundamental law of humans. It is also the reason why most people are not happy. The Hedonic treadmill states that humans tend to quickly reach a relative state of happiness despite any major positive or negative changes in life.
It’s kind of like jumping in a pool. Before jumping into the pool you know it’s going to be cold and you know it’s going to suck. But you also know that your body will adapt to the frigid temperatures. Once you jump in and you do adapt to the cold it actually feels warm and refreshing. Once you get out it gets cold again and your body has to adapt to that again. Taking it back to the hedonic treadmill, your body is always adapting to everything and it extends far and beyond the temperature of your body.
Our Naïve View of Happiness
If you have read some of my other posts about happiness, meditation and some of my other subjects I often like to talk about this thing called the ego. I often say that chasing the ego is bad, it’s wrong and it will not lead to happiness. If you never heard of the ego before in a simple sense your ego is exactly what it sounds like. Don’t chase things just to stroke your ego. Don’t buy that new car or new TV just so you can feel better about yourself; just so you can feel richer or because your friend has it and you want to up him. This is all ego chasing and the reason why it never makes you happy is because of this principle of the hedonic treadmill.
So let’s just say you do get that giant TV or you do get that promotion. Let’s even say you won the lottery. Boom you’re rich you can buy anything you want. The naive assumption is that since this person has more money his or her happiness level is higher than it was before. This person can now buy whatever he wants. The hedonic treadmill would suggest that this is not the case.
Although this person may receive a burst of happiness after winning the lottery eventually this person’s happiness level will return back to the level that it was before he won the lottery. This is why money certainly does not buy happiness.
Our Naïve View of Sadness
If going from poor or middle class to rich doesn’t make you happy in the long term; would going from rich to poor make you just as unhappy as you may assume? In 1978 a trio of researchers attempted to answer this question to reveal more about the hedonic treadmill. They basically asked two groups of people to rate the amount of happiness they had doing everyday activities such as watching TV, eating breakfast or laughing. Of the two groups, one had just won about a million dollars from the lottery and another group of people who had lost everything after a recent catastrophic accident like a lost limb.
On average, the winners of the lottery said they were a 3.33/5.00 happy doing everyday things while the accident victims rated a 3.48/5.00. So the lottery winners were actually slightly less happy but the numbers are more or less close together. Despite people who lost it all or won it all it doesn’t matter. The hedonic treadmill will always take effect and your mind will adapt to your new environment.
What our brains are really good at is detecting changes in our environment and then adapting to it. Whether this new environment is better or worse it doesn’t matter. When your environment radically changes from say a lottery win or a terrible accident it will hit you like a stack of bricks. You will have a burst of happiness or unhappiness but realize it is always temporary. The hedonic treadmill will kick in and your mind will adapt to the new environment and your happiness will level off.
I want you to also take this principle and apply it to other people in your life who you think have it better or worse than you. How does the hedonic treadmill apply here? That rich person that you know, that you are jealous of. Is he really so much happier than you because of what he has? Or that handicapped person that you feel bad for, is he really so much more unhappy than you think? Would buying that TV or getting that promotion or getting that girl make you happy forever? The reason why it is so hard for us to find happiness is because we are always chasing stuff. When we get it, we realize that it didn’t make us happy and maybe this next thing will make us happy. Maybe this next thing will make us happy.
So here’s the next question. If we will always adapt to everything because of the hedonic treadmill are we all doomed to be a 3.48/5.00 on the happiness scale? You might be saying well I want to be a 4/5 happy or a 5/5 happy. If winning the lottery and getting what I want won’t do that how does one become happier? I will tackle this question in my next article about stoicism and their view of happiness. For now, I want you to really take this stuff in because I hope it really changed your perspective on things. Maybe it changed your priorities. That new promotion or TV may not be as great as it may seem.
Have a great day!
If you want a more in-depth look at hedonic treadmill Nick Shabazz explains it very well. You keep getting the things that you think will make you happy but you realize it doesn’t and you just keep finding new things.