Defeat the Hedonic Treadmill With One Simple Practice

Happiness This way. a yellow arrow painted in yellow points the direction of happiness

Spoiler: it’s gratitude.

Happiness with an arrow pointing in one direction painted in yellow on a pavement. Infographic effect of hedonic relativism.
Photo by Denise Jones on Unsplash

Long-lasting happiness is hard to achieve. We tend to believe the grass is always greener on the other side. Our psychology around money and consumption affects our happiness in the short term, but we often neglect the long game.

Getting married, promoted, buying a new house, starting a family, and other key life events often raise our happiness. But we regress to the mean and those peaks are shortlived.

What is the hedonic treadmill?

“Hedonic” comes from the Greek word hēdonē, meaning pleasure. Most of us routinely seek pleasure. We can find pleasure in experiences, events, and, accumulating nice things.

Gaining a raise at work, finding the love of your life, and upgrading to the latest iPhone XXXVI brings pleasure.

The problem is; we adapt.

FAST.

By the time you’ve filled up the new car with petrol for the fifth time, the honeymoon phase is over. The glow has gone.

That inflated paycheck from a promotion feels wonderful. A few months later you’ve figured out how to inflate your expenses to match. You yearn for more.

The hedonic treadmill is a rat race. We desire more pleasure, and more hits of dopamine, as we adapt to our new circumstances. it all starts to feel normal

We want MORE.

MORE.

MORE.

Those big life events have little impact on our long-term happiness. You fall back to your happiness base point. The material possessions we acquire lose their sparkle.

Pursuing Happiness

Happiness transcends pleasure-seeking behavior. Aristotle informed us we experience it by living a virtuous life.

Happiness comes from meaningful work, great social networks, and appreciating what you have. Happiness is enjoying the present moment over the allure of the future. Happiness is aiming to be the best version of yourself and coming up pretty close.

We all experience the hedonic treadmill to some extent. But how can we relieve its power over us?

1. Develop a gratitude habit

Gratitude promotes happiness and positivity. Simple practices such as listing 3 things you are grateful for can raise your baseline happiness. You can also write a letter of gratitude to someone who has supported you. Bonus points for sending it to them.

Alternatively, start a gratitude jar or a jar of awesome (Tim Ferriss fans). Write down what you are grateful for and put it in the jar. The ever-filling jar represents all you have to be grateful for. Read those nuggets of goodness periodically, or whenever you need a lift.

Gratitude rewires your brain. It builds neural sensitivity to positive thinking. This makes your default mode more positive, rather than more negative.

Gratitude practices are one of the best tools we have to conquer the hedonic treadmill. Being thankful for possessions you already have can alleviate the yearning for the next shiny version.

P.S. Gratitude also improves sleep quality!

2. Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness allows you to live in the moment. It can help you relax and reduce the frequency and duration of negative emotions you experience.

3. Practice metta/loving-kindness meditation

Increase the feelings of love you have for yourself and others. Rid negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.

4. Develop an optimistic nature

Yes — this is trainable! Expect great things. Hope for the best. Believe in yourself and that everything will be okay. Try out some positive affirmations.

Throw in some realism for good measure. I view realistic optimism as the sweet spot on the cynicism/optimism continuum. An ungrounded optimist may fail to address real-world obstacles and concerns. This results in behaviors such as wishing the universe to provide.” Do not be surprised when it doesn’t.

Realistic optimism looks like positivity with a concrete plan.

5. Set meaningful goals

Having a purpose will help you feel fulfilled. Working on your goals increases well-being and creates positive reinforcement for healthy behaviors. Make your goals a priority, otherwise, you won’t have the traction required to fulfill them.

6. Develop your relationships

Deep connection is the antidote to unhappiness. Having a strong network of friends also helps you live longer*. A strong support system benefits your happiness and your health.

Whilst the average lifespan of large populations increases, there are no promises for individuals. You might get hit by a bus.

A smiling young lady demonstrating the power of strong relationships.
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Give to others

Below the poverty line, additional money makes a significant difference to our happiness levels. It’s common knowledge that above this line, the increase is slight and quickly tapers off.

When you are financially well off, it becomes more difficult to leverage your money in a way that improves your happiness. One way is to spend less on yourself and give to others. Donating to great causes and giving others gifts can provide us with longer-lasting happiness.

You can also become more methodical with your spending. Think hard about what you value. What experiences, services, or products give you the most joy in life? If possible, double down on these and cut spending on anything which doesn’t provide that ROI. Ramit Sethi’s podcast demonstrates his framework for higher-value spending. I highly recommend it!

Closing thought

There’s a growing body of research showing gratitude to be a powerful practice to improve our wellbeing. It’s quick, free, and feels great.

Think about how you can work a gratitude practice into your day. My partner and I often share something we’re grateful for over dinner. It takes moments. the ROI is huge!

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