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the tendency to always go back to the same level of happiness despite positive life events
'As soon as we acquire a moderate amount of wealth, our expectations rise for a higher quality of life. When we don't reach these new levels, our spirits flag, leaving us disillusioned. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, accountants – they all find themselves on what experts call the hedonic treadmill, working harder and making more money but still feeling blue.'Huffington Post 23rd September 2014
For many years I tolerated my tired and impractical kitchen and then, eventually, joy! It received a makeover, and became the thing of beauty and convenience I'd longed for. In the first few weeks after the transformation was complete I'd go in to make the first cuppa of the day and my heart genuinely did a little leap – this new room was actually making me happier! And then, slowly, almost imperceptibly, the feelings waned and using it just became … normal. If you can identify with an experience like this, and I'm guessing that, though the context may vary widely, most people can, then we share the common experience of plodding along on the hedonic treadmill.
we are, in essence, never quite satisfied. Like a hamster on a wheel, we're stuck on the hedonic treadmill, running faster and faster, but getting nowhere
Though it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, the expression hedonic treadmill refers to one of life's most fundamental paradoxes – the fact that happiness is transitory in nature. Though most of us experience occasional 'peaks' in contentment, the term hedonic treadmill characterises the fact that these are usually temporary, and that people have a tendency to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite the good things that periodically happen in their lives. One explanation for this offered by social scientists is that happiness doesn't depend on objective conditions, but rather on our own expectations. Expectations tend to adapt to conditions, so that when things improve, our expectations correspondingly rise. The upshot is that we are, in essence, never quite satisfied. Like a hamster on a wheel, we're stuck on the hedonic treadmill, running faster and faster, but getting nowhere.
The hedonic treadmill is one way of explaining the much-cited wisdom that money can't buy happiness, or, in other words, that the richer we get, the more our desires correspondingly increase, so that we're never permanently happy. But it's not just material pleasures that keep us on that treadmill. It's also been observed, for instance, that acquiring a new skill or overcoming a challenge might give us a rush of positive feeling along the way, but once we've mastered it, the thrill of achievement very quickly fades. Such situations are therefore equally unable to deliver a permanent increase in happiness.
The expression hedonic treadmill was coined in 1971 by psychologists P. Brickman and D. Campbell, and the concept is also sometimes known as the hedonistic treadmill or hedonic adaptation. The adjectives hedonic/hedonistic relate to the idea of (continually pursuing) pleasure, and are often associated with temporary sources of happiness like new purchases, which initially give you a sense of well-being but then lose their appeal over time. The word treadmill dates back to the early 1800s and in its literal sense describes a piece of equipment that you walk or run on whilst staying in the same position. Though today the word treadmill usually conjures up images of high-tech machines for improving fitness, treadmills were originally used as disciplinary instruments in prisons. The word's use in hedonic treadmill is based on its common metaphorical reference to a situation which is frustratingly boring, repetitive and has no long-term benefits.
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This article was first published on 2nd December 2014.