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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.