Whether it’s that promotion at work, the pay rise you believe you’re due or the career change you’ve been desperate for? Yet when it comes to it, and after the initial ‘buzz’ has worn off, you soon find yourself itching for the next big thing that you believe will complete your quest for happiness in life?
If this sounds familiar, then rest assured, you are not alone! In fact, Psychologists have coined a term to describe this very phenomenon: ‘the hedonic treadmill’. Put simply, hedonia is about the extent to which we experience happiness and pleasure in our lives; it is all about feeling good and avoiding pain, and tends to be associated with more extrinsic life achievements. Evidence suggests that we do not experience a permanent gain in happiness after such achievements, but instead we tend to return to our baseline levels of happiness.
We can all relate to that feeling of coming into a heated house after being outside in the cold, but very quickly we stop noticing the difference as the indoors becomes our new normal. In the same way, and as time passes, the achievement or big life event that we yearned for becomes our new normal. Studies have even applied this to lottery winners, and have shown that despite their newly rich status, over time, their happiness levels remained the same as before their big windfall, suggesting that the saying is true – money can’t buy you happiness!
The theory behind the ‘hedonic treadmill’ also helps to explain why the more you have, the more you want. Our expectations and desires shift after each achievement, meaning that they very quickly become the new norm, and we find ourselves constantly on the lookout for the next thing that will bring us a happiness boost.
Whilst it can certainly help us to achieve great things, the danger with focusing solely on hedonic happiness is that we can find ourselves trapped on this treadmill, and lasting happiness can seem to be a pipe dream. We may falsely believe that because we are not permanently experiencing the surge of happiness that is felt immediately after a big life achievement, we must be failing at life. If we are not careful, this becomes an addiction to short-term pleasures, at the expense of true happiness. Social media can also perpetuate this misleading hedonistic view by glamourising short-term pleasures of wealth, fame and power so that they are seen to be the same thing as happiness. This, in turn, can have more serious negative consequences on our mental health, resulting in constant feelings of inadequacy or a dependence on maladaptive coping strategies (e.g., substance abuse) to give us that artificial high that we so desperately crave.
Therefore, it’s important to recognise that whilst hedonic happiness has its place, it is only one aspect of our overall well-being, and pursuit of this alone will not lead to optimal well-being.
The hedonic concept of feeling good is very different from feeling fulfilled; we need to understand the broader concept of well-being, which extends beyond hedonic well-being and incorporates eudaimonic well-being (the sense of meaning and purpose we derive from what we do, and the extent to which we stretch ourselves and exercise control over decisions and actions in our lives), psychological well-being (our experience of positive mental states and the extent to which we hold a positive outlook about things), social well-being (the level of connectedness and support we have from others) and physical well-being (our general fitness and experience of illness). It is only through consideration of all five components of well-being that we can promote optimal experience and functioning and increase our capacity for long-term happiness.
In particular, the importance of eudaimonic well-being should not be underestimated. It is all too easy to become preoccupied with the things we believe will make us happy, rather than putting our energy into making a life that is worth feeling happy about. By shifting our focus from the pursuit of pleasure to pursuing the things in life that give us meaning and purpose and that we feel truly passionate about, we can find that true happiness naturally follows.
Essentially, we can escape the hedonic treadmill trap by recognising that a large part of happiness lies within us and has less to do with the initial ‘buzz’ we experience when getting that promotion, and more to do with the lasting sense of fulfilment and purpose that this new opportunity can bring.
Dr Emma Rushton is a Chartered Psychologist at Zeal Solutions. At Zeal, we believe in strengthening people and organisations. Through our understanding of the science of human behaviour and experience of the workplace, we assess and develop people, teams and leaders. Essentially, we’re psychologists with business in mind and we help organisations create healthier, happier and more productive workplaces. For more information about the practical tools and bespoke services we can offer to your organisation, including our assessment of staff well-being contact us today E: email@example.com T: 01159 932 324.