The Hedonic Treadmill is a term in psychology which refers to a pattern of behavior where the unusually impactful events of our lives, a death in the family, winning the lottery, et cetera, may cause a temporary spike or dip in our happiness but that overall our levels of happiness do not change much as time goes on.
Now while this can make difficult things easier to overcome this also means that when it comes to increasing our happiness we can often be running hard in place never going anywhere. That if we get that great new job or inherit a bunch of money or move to that city we’ve always fantasized about moving to, we can end up no happier than we were before those things happened.
We’ll examine this phenomenon first by studying why it exists and then exploring ways to overcome the hedonic treadmill. Lastly, we’ll discuss some common pitfalls to avoid.
Why are we on it?
Humanity’s ability to adapt to far-ranging circumstances is both a blessing and a curse, and it has been for a very long time.
“Casy chuckled. ‘Fella can get so he misses the noise of the sawmill.’” – John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, 1939.
Lumber harvesting was a notoriously difficult job in the time of Steinbeck’s novel. There were famous strikes and riots over working conditions, with violence and outcry all across the country. And yet, as is noted by the Reverend John Casy in Steinbeck’s book, someone who worked there long enough could get so used to the conditions, severe as they were, that they might find themselves missing it.
That same chapter discusses men who were released from prison only to commit crimes again in and caught and sent back. The unfamiliar can be so frightening that we can learn to prefer it over good change.
Not only this but our brains actually have a bias towards recognizing and focusing on negativity. Those of our ancestors who heard a rustle in the bushes and were sure that it was a predator when it was not, were far more likely to survive and reproduce than those of those who always assumed it was the wind. In a life-or-death scenario, a negative bias is far more likely to protect you than a positive one.
But we aren’t living in life or death scenarios in our day-to-day, and so this patternicity can often become a problem. “In effect, the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” – Dr. Rick Hanson
Focusing on negative
Negative experiences come to mind easily and they affect us deeply without much conscious effort. Positive experiences, studies have shown, do not come to mind as easily and they affect us far less intensely unless we consciously focus on them.
When something bad happens your brain latches onto it immediately. Think about an embarrassing thing you said in front of someone recently. That wasn’t particularly difficult to conjure up, was it?
In contrast, whenever we have a positive moment, say a time when words that we spoke to a grieving friend helped them tremendously, we are far less likely to remember that memory with as much detail and to reflect on it at all. I can still remember the stupid answer I gave to a teacher in my sixth grade elementary history class, but I can’t remember exactly what I said to help a friend get through the immediate aftermath of a painful divorce. This is a negative bias in action.
While negative experiences are like velcro, positive experiences aren’t impossible to retain. They do, however, require effort. It usually takes 20-30 seconds for a positive experience to have an actual neurologically long-lasting impact on the brain.
Gratitude is key
The truth is that a good thing happen to us every day, but we do not take the time to acknowledge them in a way that can affect our long-term emotional well being. Gratitude is a powerful tool in our fight against the hedonic treadmill. Here’s a quick and easy practice to increase your happiness baseline.
At the end of your day, find one good thing or pleasant interaction that you had that day. It can be something massive and obvious, like praise or promotion from your boss, or something smaller and less intense, like the barista at the coffee shop you frequent, has started preparing your order just before you walk in every day and knows you by your first name. Whatever it is, write that thing down in your journal, day planner, or even just a sticky note at your desk. Then, for 30 seconds, focus on being grateful for that moment.
Think to yourself “Wow, before this happened I felt one way. And then afterward I felt better. How lucky am I that I can have these experiences of joy in the middle of my normal life. I can’t wait until the next time I can have a moment like this tomorrow.” It might seem trite but these expressions of focused gratitude can dramatically increase our baseline of happiness.
Training ourselves to recognize moments like this increases our happiness, and that increases the likelihood of having more positive experiences.
Shawn Achor, a researcher and author, noted this in The Happiness Advantage, “If we can get somebody to raise their levels of optimism or deepen their social connection or raise happiness, turns out every single business and the educational outcome we know how to test for improves dramatically. You can increase your success rates for the rest of your life and your happiness levels will flatline, but if you raise your level of happiness and deepen optimism it turns out every single one of your success rates rises dramatically compared to what it would have been at negative, neutral, or stressed.”
He’s touching on the hedonic treadmill at the end there, if we don’t learn to consciously reflect and enjoy the happy things that happen to us, we stagnate in it. Even when we succeed and attain the things we’ve been telling ourselves will make us happier, they won’t impact us the way we want them to unless we are intentional about taking those moments in as they come.
“Gratitude can have such a powerful impact on your life because it engages your brain in a virtuous cycle. Your brain only has so much power to focus its attention. It cannot easily focus on both positive and negative stimuli. It is like a small child: easily distracted.” Dr. Alex Korb shows us more studies which outline this truth. One study had participants journaling about things they were grateful for, things that annoyed them, and ways they were better off than others. Those who journaled about they were grateful for had notable increases in enthusiasm, determination, and energy when compared to the other two groups. Gratitude is a powerful force not only for our happiness but our success.
Since our brains are wired to latch onto negative experiences and let positive ones slide off of us, we must do intentional work to process our positive experiences as well as not allow the negative ones to overshadow everything else.
Self-reflection is an underutilized skill in today’s world, it is the ability to accurately and compassionately view one’s circumstances and experiences and to learn from them. This skill allows us to recognize when we’re stuck on the hedonic treadmill, when things are changing but we aren’t feeling or recognizing any increase in happiness or wellbeing, and it helps to relish and enjoy moments of growth and happiness when they happen. Here are two methods you can use to increase your ability to self-reflect:
This tried and true method of self-reflection is as old as the availability of paper and knowledge of writing. In fact, the earliest forms of the novel as a literary form consisted of a mixture of epistolary writing (letters written between two fictional characters) and journal entries, so widespread was the practice.
Modern science has further highlighted the positive benefits of this tool, “Journaling requires the application of the analytical, rational left side of the brain; while your left hemisphere is occupied, your right hemisphere (the creative, touchy-feely side) is given the freedom to wander and play (Grothaus, 2015)! Allowing your creativity to flourish and expand can be cathartic and make a big difference in your daily well-being.”
When you journal, allow your thoughts and feelings to wander as you reflect on your day, and note any peaks or valleys of emotion. Don’t judge them, just record them. We cannot change how we feel, we cannot change how a day went, but we can learn how let it go. After all, no matter what you write on that page, there is another day and another page to fill. Even the hardest moments cannot change that.
Journaling has helped me to recognize patterns that I would not have noticed otherwise. When I started journaling I included a rating I would give each day, out of ten. After a month or so I started to notice that many of the days that got a 7/10 or higher would contain mentionings of eating well (well for me means healthy as well as tasty) and of spending good quality time with my friends or family.
On days where I was more rushed and had to eat fast food, as well as days where I spent no time with them or when the time spent was less focused on one another and was spent doing tedious things (chores, going to the DMV, working on homework with no breaks for interactions with one another), the ratings were lower. This might seem obvious now, but in the hum of day-to-day activity, it can be hard to recognize these things.
Once I was able to, however, I could change how I planned my days. I prioritized eating at least one good meal a day, a meal I would be happy to think about having that night. Even if it meant more work to prepare at the moment. And whenever I had time slotted with my friends or family. I was sure to eliminate distractions so that the time spent with them was quality time where we could talk, laugh, hold hands, etc., rather than work and be in the same room.
It is hard to have gratitude and to develop the tools needed to keep off the hedonic treadmill if you are held back by trauma, but beyond that therapy can be incredibly effective at helping develop skills for self-reflection. One of the most common tools a therapist uses is reflection, where the emotional and mental energies and statements of the person speaking are reflected back at them externally so that they can gain a deeper perspective on it. Therapists can help us find blind spots and ways we can improve our mental wellbeing and that leads to a deeper experience of happiness.
My experiences with therapy have been incredibly beneficial in this regard. In my first session I remembering barreling right into the problems I was having with anxiety about my job. One I had gotten right out of college the same week I graduated. She stopped me after twenty minutes and said “Wait, wait. Have you taken even one moment to recognize how much change and accomplishment you’ve experienced in the past couple of weeks? You graduated from a university with a degree, and you started a full-time job right out of school. That’s a big deal, you should be proud of that, even if it is stressful.”
I realized that after four and a half years of working and studying, I had blown right past the actual success I’d experienced and bent headlong into work at my new job without recognizing how lucky I was to land one right after graduating, and how my work in my undergraduate program had gotten me there.
Pitfalls to avoid
Just as there are things that can optimize our ability to recognize the good in our lives and increase our happiness, there are plenty of things that can set us back. Self-reflection can help us to recognize these problem areas, but here are three common ones.
Negative relationships/conversation dynamics are a frequent cause of strife in communities, and can easily cause us to lose sight of the positive things happening in our lives. For a time I worked as a bartender in a popular movie theater chain. One of the other bartenders, like myself, was a pretty relaxed and easy going person who could adapt to changes easily and had no problem helping out the theater beyond our normal job duties.
The other bartender, on the other hand, was frequently angered by any requests to help outside of their normal duties, and whenever shift-changes occurred would complain to me about whatever it was that they had to help with during their shift. Trivial as this might seem, I often found myself more likely to be irritated by requests from managers or other staff asking for help after interacting with that bartender.
The people we are in frequent contact will affect our outlook on life, like bartender in my example, are unavoidable. For those relationships that we have more control over, we should be careful to prevent frequent prolonged contact with those who bring us down. Rather than cutting them out completely, we should try and turn the conversations away from complaining about things and people and towards positive things if possible. Those moments can be awkward initially, but the relationships are often better for them.
Focusing on failure
It is a problem most of us have and is one of the reasons we can so easily get stuck on the hedonic treadmill. Even in the face of success, a promotion at work, the birth of a child, we can find ourselves no less unhappy than before because we keep going over and over the mistakes of our past in our minds.
Mistakes are painful, and we can often feel the consequences years later. But more often than not our own obsession with and refusal to move on from mistakes can make those negative feelings last far longer than they need to.
Rather than focusing on how you’ve failed in the past, try to understand what led to those moments and recognize that there are lessons to be learned even in the most painful of mistakes. Write down the failure you had, and then try and name five things that you’ve learned from it. Once you’ve done it, recognize that the failure, while it was and maybe is incredibly painful, has made you a better person and you can move on from it. Be thankful for the lessons, and allow that pain to subside once you’ve had time to grieve.
Everyone fails, everyone makes mistakes, dwelling on them or repressing them will only make it worse. Pi Patel, in the film adaptation of Yann Martel’s book The Life of Pi says this about the painful experiences of life: “I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.”
Failing To Rest
The last common pitfall when trying to get off the hedonic treadmill is failing to rest. Happiness is a feeling that takes place in our brain, in our neurons. This chemical process is affected by external stimuli, the events of our day. But is also affected by the resources we take in in order to manage that stimuli. Resting is essential to our health, and our minds break down quickly when we are unable to rest properly.
In order to rest well, try shutting your phone and computer off at least one hour before going to bed. The constant pinpricks of dopamine we get from text messages and notifications tell our brains to stay up and stay alert because “things are happening”. But the reality is that all of those things can wait until the next day.
Ensure that you are going to bed early enough to get the sleep needed to function well the next day. For most adults, that’s going to be seven and a half to eight hours of sleep. Better sleep habits mean you’ll be more awake and more aware during the day. This means you’ll be far better prepared to self-reflect, to be present at the moment when something good happens. And your ability to manage stress and not allow negative experiences to override your day. Getting off the hedonic treadmill requires all of those things. But it is much harder to do those things if we aren’t well rested.
Getting off the hedonic treadmill (and staying off)
We put immense effort into improving our lives. Also we stay late at work, we read and increase our knowledge base to perform better. We try to save money and eat well so that we are as healthy as possible. But if we aren’t intentional about recognizing our efforts and taking time to focus on and enjoy them. We will be readily increasing our take-home pay, our education, and our health. But never increasing our baseline of happiness to match it.
What’s the point of getting a new job with better pay, a house you’ve always dreamed of having, or nailing that diet you’ve spent so much energy to do if you can’t actually enjoy the benefits of those things?
Recognizing the pitfalls in our lives that can cause us to get into cycles of negativity. Practicing gratitude and self-reflection, these things can help us get off the hedonic treadmill and get our feet on solid ground so that when we expend effort to move, we actually go somewhere.
Where can I find more resources on gratitude?
There are loads of Ted Talks about this, but my favorite one is David Steindl-Rast. Slowing down, watching where we’re going, these simple ideas can be impactful in finding ways to be grateful each day.
Beyond that, I’d suggest the book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. One other thing you can do is meditation. There are meditations centered specifically around gratitude if you Google it. I’m sure you’ll find a bunch of different things to try.
Or find a friend who you can make a practice of being grateful with. Try to meet over coffee or tea once a week and talk about something you’re grateful for. Try to reflect with one another about how much things have changed in the past few months, years, etc. Recognize ways in which you’ve grown and ways you’ve seen the other person grow.
How can I stop focusing on failure?
This is a difficult one, and one of the many scenarios where I’d suggest working with a therapist. If you deal with regular, persistent feelings of guilt, shame, or anxiety about your past mistakes. But there are things you can do yourself to focus less on failure. Recognizing that everything in our lives is there to teach us is powerful, even our failures. That is really just restating the often heard phrase by others that
That exercise I mentioned above where you write down the lessons has helped me to process immensely negative experiences. One thing you can add to that practice is to write or say aloud “I am thankful for the lessons that this experience (don’t say failure) has taught me, this will make me better”. Our brains respond powerfully to writing or speaking things out loud, at a neurological level.
Appart from Journaling and finding a person to console, I would like to challenge you 2 additional action items:
Make a list of 5 people you spend the most time with… Create 2 columns – how they fill /drain your bucket. Reflect on this list, and decide who you should spend more time with, and who you should spend less time with. We have all heard the saying “Show me your friends, and I will show you your future”. The way they make us think and feel is a big part of this.
Ask yourself (or very powerful if you have kids) before you go to bed each night:
1) what am I thankful for today and
2) what am I proud of myself for today?
This is particularly powerful if you have had a lot of negative self-talk recently. Or if you have children you have been riding hard because they aren’t conforming your rules, etc. It allows a chance to refocus on what’s positive and trains us to seek those things to be thankful for.