The Hedonic Treadmill: a Block to Happiness and Contentment
To some extent or another we are all programed towards pleasure and self-gratification (hedonism). The next party, the next item of clothing, the next drink, meal or must-have gadget are everyday examples. The pursuit of pleasure can be a lot of fun but the excitement that comes from material goods tends to last quite a short time. The first chocolate you eat is often the best. We adapt very quickly to novelty and just as quickly we take such things for granted. Before we know it we’re back to our baseline happiness threshold. That set-point we are all too familiar with.
Happiness and possessions are poorly correlated. Lottery winners are no more happy than most other people for example. Richer nations aren’t filled with happier citizens than poorer nations. The idea behind the hedonic treadmill metaphor is quite simple. It tells us that acquiring stuff, or doing things can achieve little boosts of happiness, but it quickly wears off. To get those feelings back the temptation might be to keep on doing the same thing over and over.
The treadmill idea has been applied to all sorts of things. Marriage is a case in point. Anyone who has been married for some time knows how both parties have to adapt over time if they want the relationship to flourish. Long-term happiness is more about long-term contentment in which moments of excitement may occur.
As with many metaphors the appeal is often found wanting if we put them under a little scrutiny. It’s actually silly to suggest that material goods or wealth has no effect on overall contentment or welfare. That’s a bit like saying there’s no point making a poor person richer because they won’t be any better off. So we have to be content with the spirit of what is being put forward by the notion of the hedonic treadmill rather than accept it as truth. Much of what is said is accurate but it still depends on where we start to look.
So in the spirit of the exercise we can conclude by saying it may seem a little sad that we adapt so quickly to the positives in life but the good news is we also adapt to the negatives. Unfortunately we seem hard-wired to adapt to positive events more quickly than negative. But there are two messages we can take from all this. The first is that happiness boosts certainly do come about from material goods. The second is that sustainable happiness or contentment requires more careful thought and will ultimately come from within.