Lasting Happiness and the Hedonic Treadmill

Change, contentment, and finding joy in the everyday.

Treadmills are hot this time of year. NordicTrack, Bowflex, and Peloton all make a host of products I'm clearly underutilizing. But I'm thinking today about those with a more psychological flare: hedonic treadmills. Mike Rucker puts it this way in an essay for Psyche:

“The ‘hedonic treadmill’ is a term used to describe the human tendency to adapt to changes in your life, returning to your baseline level of happiness after an impactful life event has affected your emotional state. This phenomenon is related to the concept of the happiness set point, as it implies that your pursuit of happiness may be a never-ending cycle of striving for more, without ever feeling truly satisfied. It also highlights the tendency to overestimate the impact that life changes and events will have on your happiness. For example, you finally get that promotion, but your elation wears off as you adapt into your new role. Worse, perhaps you find the new role is not what you expected.”

Maybe you're a superhuman, and you've never struggled with this, but I admit that sometimes, I expect change itself to serve as a sustainable happiness accelerant. When the joy of a big event or accomplishment wears off, it can feel like you're a hamster back on a wheel to nowhere.

Among other solutions, Rucker proposes circumventing the gladness/gloom cycle by focusing on enjoying everyday experiences and less on outcomes. Of course, this isn't rocket science, but I remember Kobe Bryant saying something similar about basketball that has stuck with me. In a chat with Alabama's legendary football coach Nick Saban, Bryant said this:

“The process, loving the process, loving the daily grind of it, and putting the puzzle together. This generation seems to be really concerned with the end result of things versus understanding, appreciating the journey to get there — which is the most important — and the trials and tribulations that come with it. You have successes, you have failures, but it’s all part of the end game.”

And Rucker agrees:

“A growing body of research suggests that you can circumvent the hedonic treadmill and experience lasting happiness by focusing on the present moment – finding joy in your everyday experiences. When you can lean into enjoying the moment – while you’re in it – it relieves you from some of the pressure of deriving satisfaction from an outcome. Contentment becomes a long-term sustainable by-product of having fun. In this way, fun gives you the opportunity to jump off the proverbial hedonic treadmill.”

The gym of your mind

I have a variety of goals this year, but maybe the most important is that I will focus on receiving life as a gift each day. And research suggests you should, too. Cultivate contentment in small moments and journeys, quiet maintenance, and being bad at stuff. Have fun learning how to have fun. Fall in love with the varied processes in each sphere of life—seeing them as such to remove unfair burdens of satisfaction and receive them again as gifts instead of consumer exchanges.

I'm going to write a lot more about these processes to help me along the way. It won't be all that profound, and many entries will only be a few lines, but I want to love the process of processing life, and writing is one way for me to do it. And the privilege of sharing it with you is yet another gift.

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