The Hedonic Treadmill

I’ve recently discovered the concept of The Hedonic Treadmill, or “Hedonic Adaptation” as it is sometimes called and it’s a subject that has made me think quite a bit.

The premise is that despite significant life changing events, whether they are positive or negative, people generally return to a general baseline of happiness.

For example, researchers studied recent lottery winners and paraplegics. Immediately following the event, they had seen a rise in happiness in those who won the lottery and a decrease in those who became paraplegic. However, even within only two months, they saw the happiness levels return to normal.

Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman (1978) used the idea of the hedonic treadmill to explain how people with a wide variety of resources or lack of resources can maintain similar levels of happiness. They showed that people readily adapt to their fortunes or misfortunes. Lottery winners, for example, may experience an initial emotional high, but report about the same level of happiness they previously held after time passed. Similarly, paraplegics reported below average levels of happiness for about two months on average after the accident but eventually returned to the set point they previously held. – PsychWiki

This is a really interesting phenomenon to me. As much as it seems counterintuitive, it really does explain a lot of what we see in the world.

On one hand we regularly see ‘privileged’ people getting upset and angry about the most trivial of things. We get so accustomed to living such an easy life that any minor inconvenience seems like a big deal. Louis CK has a great bit about “White People Problems” that illustrates this perfectly.

 (Original source)

On the other hand, you’ve got people in third world countries who live in huts and scramble for food, who really don’t seem any less happy than we are here. In some cases, they seem even happier. There’s a great TED Talk with Jon Jandai, a farmer from northeastern Thailand who talks about living a simple happy life in relative poverty.

I don’t think that this means that we’re stuck at our current level of happiness forever so we shouldn’t even bother to try and change our circumstances.  I think what this suggests, is that external circumstances have very little impact on our happiness levels and happiness needs to come from within.

Brain chemistry and psychological research suggests that only 10% of our “happiness” is determined by external circumstances such as money, health, and relationships – and that the other 90% comes intrinsically from within. – A Course in Miracles

This means that we should avoid striving to achieve things with the expectation that they will bring us happiness. “When I finally get that promotion, I’ll be happy.” or “I need to lose those darn 20lbs and then I’ll be happy.”

The fact is that you likely won’t be any happier at that point. If you’re always looking for the next thing to make you happy, you’ll likely have something else that’s in the way preventing you from true happiness.

Instead, we should look at focusing on our inner selves and cultivating true happiness from within. For example,. something as simple as being grateful has been shown to have tremendous impacts on happiness levels. This is something I’ve been very intrigued in for the past little while and will be writing about more in the future.


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