In the late 1990s, psychologist Michael Eysenck used the phrase ‘Hedonic Treadmill’ to compare the pursuit of happiness with being on a treadmill: running fast and working hard, but still staying in the same place.
The Hedonic Treadmill, also known as Hedonic Adaptation, is the notion that human happiness adapts to our experience, i.e. our increase or decrease in happiness after an event eventually returns to a ‘happiness set point’ because we psychologically adapt to that new experience, whatever it may be.
Research by positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky indicates that 50% of our happiness is genetic, 10% is based on life circumstance, and 40% is within our control. While genetics and personality variables may largely explain your hedonic set point, your goals and attentional focus play a role in your day-to-day happiness. In other words, you don’t have to stay on the treadmill – you can have a huge influence on your own happiness!
It’s the same effect as when you first start lifting weights, for example, a relatively light weight might be all it takes to start putting on muscle. But once the body adapts to that exercise, heavier and heavier weights will be needed to keep getting stronger.
Using the theory of the Hedonic Treadmill, I want to create the Hedonic Path, which allows you to refocus your goals to experience a higher level of happiness. Rather than idealising a larger house or promotion at work as the key to your happiness, shift the way you think about success.
In 1987, Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman published a study titled “Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative?” This study examined people who won a large sum of money from the lottery and victims in life altering accidents (quadriplegic/paraplegic).
The study showed, as expected, that there was immense happiness from the lottery wins and immense sadness from the victims of life altering accidents. However, over the long term their happiness returned to a base line level, neither group were found to be happier than the other.
When you’re on the Hedonic Path you focus on increasing your overall happiness by what you want to achieve in the long term. Forget about the things you want today, tomorrow or next week. Set yourself big, audacious goals – month-long goals, year-long goals.
If you can wake up every day with a purpose and align your actions with these goals, then you are connecting with what excites and motivates you to make a difference in the world.
Then each day, each week, work on strengthening your interpersonal bonds with friends and family or perform a good deed for a stranger. Instead of focusing on people who have more material goods than you, consider the less tangible blessings in your life, such as a loving partner, or good health. Studies have shown time and time again that heightened happiness is experienced via doing things and helping others.
The Hedonistic Treadmill suggests that we have a set level of happiness.
When good things happen, that level of happiness briefly spikes. When bad things happen, that level of happiness momentarily drops. In time, regardless of whether what happened was good or bad you’ll soon find yourself returning to your set level of happiness – whether you won the lottery or suffered a traumatic injury.
When you are on the Hedonic Path, you are focusing your cognitive resources on the positive elements in your life, plus taking action each day towards achieving those big audacious goals. Now your baseline happiness level has so much more potential.