The Hedonic Treadmill
Have you ever found yourself wondering you would be happier if you bought a new car, a bigger house, or got promoted? But more often than not, once you attain any of these things, the happiness attached with them, although intense for a while, is momentary; you inadvertently go back to the way you were before. This is described as The Hedonic Treadmill; that regardless of what might happen to someone, they return to the same baseline happiness. The overall feeling of happiness in your life is somewhat constant with simple fluctuations here and there.
The term hedonic adaptation was first coined in 1971 later and became famous in the 90s when compared to a treadmill by Michael Eysenck. According to him, one had to constantly work to maintain the level of happiness he desired. The hedonic set point in psychology is basically a person’s tendency for happiness determined both by genetics and the circumstances of one’s upbringing, among other factors.
A research was conducted using two groups of people: One who had recently won the lottery and paraplegic people who had recently become paralyzed following an accident. Now I know which group we all would think is undoubtedly happier than the other, but surprisingly the results revealed that although the two groups of people had initially experienced feelings of intense happiness and sadness respectively; a year down the line both groups had returned to the same basic level of happiness that is, neither looked to be happier than the other. The effects of these seemingly life-changing events had diminished with time resulting in both sets of people having more or less the same amount of happiness in their lives.
So what does this mean for us? Can we in no way gain more joy in our lives? Is the pursuit of happiness pointless? Is this all really just up to fate? And if we somehow end up with the short end of the stick? Are we forever doomed to be sad?
Well, no, not exactly. Even though what Brickman and Campbell initially proposed was that no matter the good and bad points and all the fluctuations we eventually return to neutrality, further research has brought us a greater understanding of this cycle. The highlight being that the setpoint is rarely ever true neutrality; it lies way above that. It is a positive one rather than being a balanced score. Furthermore, happiness is a very complicated emotion. A person could be experiencing a multitude of negative emotions at that instant but still, be happy with the quality of his life and general level of satisfaction.
Psychologists have suggested that one can outrun the effects of the hedonic treadmill by practicing “Loving-Kindness Meditation” which is an ancient practice now being used in complementary and alternate medicine as a mind-body practice for self-healing and happiness. This is a form of meditation, which on its own is thought to be one of the best calming techniques. It results in feelings of warmth, compassion, and care for yourself and for others all around you.
Although it is fundamental to grasp this concept, we have to realize that we do, in fact, have the ability to improve. We get to choose the way we react to a situation, no matter how good or bad. We get to choose; how we look back on it; as a tragedy, a lesson, or a fun story to tell our grandchildren. We need to allow ourselves to be human, allow ourselves to feel; all the good, the bad, and the ugly, to not reject our emotions. Only then can we acquire true happiness.