3 Reasons Why The Hedonic Treadmill Will Get You Nowhere

Have you ever found yourself thinking or saying “I’ll be happy when……”? If so, it’s likely you’ve been on the Hedonic treadmill. Unlike a real treadmill, we usually don’t recognize when we are pacing on the hedonic treadmill.

What the heck is a “hedonic treadmill”?! The hedonic treadmill effect is the tendency of people to quickly return to their baseline level of happiness despite getting a small win (“I beat the traffic light before it turned red”) or a major score (“congratulations, you won the lottery!”). The good news is that it works both ways and we naturally rebound from negative events as well. The bad news is that it becomes insidious when we stride on that treadmill “to get more” and “be happy when……”.  Because even when you get what you’re after and were you want to go, you just never quite seem to arrive.

I know I’ve been on that treadmill before. How about you?

In his excellent book “The Law of Happiness: How Spiritual Wisdom and Modern Science Can Change Your Life” Henry Cloud points out at least three reasons why  thinking “I’ll be happy when I get…….the new house, the new job, the new relationship, the bigger bank account, etc.” and other circumstantial things is a treadmill mindset that will not make you happy:

  1. External circumstances do not have the inherent power to bring us happiness- a lot of the desires and wants we think will make us happy just don’t have the staying power to fulfill. They are simply temporary “states” we find ourselves in.  The associated emotion fades once “it” is achieved or obtained or your circumstances change. Return to set point. Ironically, the very thing or achievement can then become a source of angst if we begin to worry or fear losing it.
  2. Circumstantial happiness doesn’t last– circumstances are just that: circumstantial. Not only can they change, they most definitely will. In addition, circumstances typically only account for 10% of our happiness. I could identify with his comment that whether or not he was called Henry or Dr. Cloud, his happiness had more to do with whether he was practicing the laws of happiness than with the fact he had a degree.  I had a similar experience. In fact, it was made even more poignant by the way my grandmother proudly introduced me to her friends shortly after I earned my Ph.D. She said “….he’s a doctor now, but not the kind that can really help anybody”. I knew she meant to say that I wasn’t a medical doctor. However, it was a little humbling and deflating non-the-less. Return to set point.
  3. We ignore things that can boost our levels of happiness when we chase the ones that can’t- Just like your body needs certain nutrients to make it healthy, your heart, mind, and soul need certain practices to stay healthy. There are too many to list, but some include self-regulation, confidence, novelty, relationship, intentional worship, giving, personal growth, and making steady progress in the pursuit of meaningful goals.

I think Jim Rohn said it best when quoting his mentor Earl Shoaf: “Jim, I do hope you become a millionaire one day. Not because of the money you make, but because of the person you’ll become in the process”. True happiness is more about what we are becoming and who we become than about what we get.

It’s always good to step back and reflect not only on what we are doing, but why we are doing it as well as who we are becoming in the process. As you look down, what’s telling you you’re on firm ground and not a treadmill?

Please leave a comment, sometimes the obvious is anything but and your perspective can help.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

4 thoughts on “3 Reasons Why The Hedonic Treadmill Will Get You Nowhere

  1. Great word Rob. The person we are in God’s eyes and the person we are becoming in our own is the true foundation of happiness.

  2. A great read for early Monday morning, thanks Rob. A big issue for me related to your message, obvious but none the less quite challenging, is to get myself in the right place – the right environment mentally and physically – to enable truly meaningful deep reflection and contemplation. Probably a topic of one of your past or future posts. I can recall a number of deeply reflective moments occurring when I have been on a solo long-distance drive. That environment limited external stimulation, allowed for a healthy pace of thinking and movement and provided a degree of control of my environment that typically does not exist. I need to find other way to create similar environments, more routinely, in order to think and live more deeply. For me, an early step to accomplishing what you are counseling.

    • George,

      Thanks for your comments here. The general principle of what you noted is right-on the money- environment matters.

      Our ability to exercise higher levels of reflection, contemplation, and mindfulness in a distracted environment improves as we practice. However, to grow it to the next level requires a conducive environment. We can then reinforce those skills with practice in the distracted environment and come back to solitude to grow some more……and in doing so repeatedly, we put into place a virtuous cycle.

      The thing you noted that was also helpful were the particulars of: limited external stimulation, healthy pace of thinking/movement and degree of control.

      I had not thought of making a post in that regard but am going to do so now….thanks for sharing and the blog fodder!!

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