Are you stuck on the hedonic treadmill?

If you’re unfamiliar, the hedonic treadmill (aka hedonic adaptation) is a concept that suggests no matter how good or bad any event in life feels, we will always return to a baseline level of happiness. 

Numerous studies illustrate this recurrence in the human experience, but to illustrate let’s look at one of the largest.

A 2020 study looked at over 2,500 winners of the Swedish lottery, winning on average £77,000. The study found that, in terms of self-reported happiness, the respondents' feelings over time were “not significantly different from zero.


As the philosopher William James once said, "my experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind."

After the initial dropkick of a bereavement, day-to-day life will eventually return to something that resembles normality, until our attention is drawn to the loss (Bonnano & Keltner, 1997).

To mirror this, owners of luxury cars are no happier during trips than owners of cheaper ones, unless they’re thinking about the attributes of their cars whilst driving (Schwarz, Kahneman & Xu, 2009).

“Man is a pliant animal, a being who gets accustomed to anything.”
— Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Our society is encouraged to chase goals as a means to succeed, to achieve purpose, to thrive. But there’s next to nothing taught to us about how to maintain our happiness if we’re able to achieve them.

This is understood by many as the Second Mountain Theory. Essentially, our loftiest goals are initially focused on satiating our ego. Once we reach the top of that mountain, and bask in the accompanying status/money/value, we feel an urge to ascend a second peak. One that favours meaning and purpose over material gains.

The hedonic treadmill idea suggests that it’s always that “next thing” that’s alluring, not whatever it is we’ve just managed to achieve.⁠ Whether we’re sprinting or crawling, we’ll find ourselves in the same emotional location as we began at. 

The problem with this theory is it suggests that we’ll be doomed to forever return to our baseline level of happiness.

It’s important to remember that the treadmill concept is exactly that, a theory. There is plenty of evidence that suggests it to be true. Perhaps individually we may identify with the feelings of  succeeding, yet not feel any happier. 

There is contrary evidence (Diener et al., 1999) that highlights how our wellbeing can improve our base level of happiness That is to say, irrespective of negative/positive events, if we focus on understanding our individual, unique wellbeing, and chase that relentlessly as our goal, then we can expect to iteratively improve our happiness in kind.

Sweeping generalisations never quite account for the crumbs of our eccentric, human essence. 

Only by figuring out what makes you light up, what makes you feel good, however long it takes, will you discover the happiest path to take

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