It's Time to Rethink the Hedonic Treadmill
The pursuit of happiness needs a new metaphor.
Posted July 17, 2022 | Reviewed by Tyler Woods
- The hedonic treadmill stands as a tired metaphor that there’s not much we can do to improve our long-term happiness.
- Many of us underestimate the autonomy and agency we have regarding our ability to create and attract joy in any given moment.
- If we learn and grow from our circumstances, with practice we become mindful of our happiness set point and empower ourselves to circumvent it.
- Simply the act of acknowledging that life is a finite journey can free you to enjoy it more, inspiring you to make the most of the time you have.
Maybe you’ve heard of the hedonic treadmill—the theory that suggests that we adapt to whatever life throws at us. Whatever happens in our lives, good or bad, eventually we return to our “happiness set point,” a personal baseline for our general mood.
Get a promotion? Your happiness may get a boost but will likely level off over time. Get laid off? Your mood may take a hit for a few months, but odds are you’ll return to your old self sooner than you might expect.
When it was first introduced, the idea of a hedonic treadmill was a bit of a downer for those of us who sought to improve our happiness.
For instance, a 1996 study from Psychological Science found that genetics are responsible for around 50 percent of our happiness level, indicating it’s not so much our circumstances but also our genes that are responsible for a significant portion of how we emotionally respond to life’s events.
Fortunately, we’re now beginning to have a more nuanced understanding of the hedonic treadmill, and I propose it’s time to ditch this tired term in favor of something more empowering.
Why “treadmill” is a problematic metaphor
The concept of a treadmill deemphasizes the importance our autonomy and agency have regarding our ability to create joy. Instead, it frames happiness as a function of what happens “to” us.
Furthermore, nobody wants to think of their life as an endless slog on a treadmill. First, it deemphasizes the reality that life is timebound, even though awareness of this truth can be a potent force in living a meaningful life. (Some psychologists even argue that death acceptance is life’s ultimate goal.)
Second, it implies that life is unvarying, that we are essentially powerless to change our circumstances, and, more importantly, our responses to our circumstances even though we now understand variable hedonics is one of the best ways to circumvent our happiness set point.
In reality, life is not endless and unvarying; it unfolds over time, and change is inevitable. Although evidence does suggest that we likely have a predisposition to a certain level of happiness—our own unique “set point”—most of us have a significant amount of personal control over the fun and delight we’ll experience over our lifespan.
What's more, as we grow and evolve throughout our lives in reaction to our circumstances, we can become mindful of the treadmill’s effect and empower ourselves to circumvent it.
A more empowering metaphor
Perhaps a better approach is to consider your life as a trip down a river, navigating a hedonic current. One side of the river holds pleasant external experiences, the other side unpleasant.
As you travel downstream, you learn from your experiences. You master how to best handle the current you ride. You find that you have some control (though certainly not ultimate control) over which side of the river you spend the most time on.
For example, we know happiness can be increased for many through exercise, meditation, spending time with friends, and deliberately cultivating fun. As you accumulate life experience and mature, you learn how to steer yourself into more pleasant waters with more reliability. When times do get tough, you are better equipped to navigate difficult circumstances and therefore recover more quickly while strengthening your resilience.
This new metaphor—the hedonic current—also helps us understand where our power to control our happiness and life satisfaction lies: in our choices about where we focus our energy, how we respond to external circumstances, and how we proactively seek positive experiences.
More good news
Not only do you have quite a bit of control over bringing joy and delight into your life, but you can also influence others’ joy for the better as well. When you are having fun, the odds are stacked in favor of the people around you having fun, too.
We’ve all experienced this, either at home or at work. Maybe when your partner is in a good mood, you feel greater well-being. Or maybe there’s a colleague whose enthusiasm and good nature will always leave others feeling better after a meeting.
Therefore, getting off the treadmill is not a self-serving proposition. It also has a positive impact on those around you.
Ditch the treadmill, navigate your current
Regardless of your personal happiness set point, it’s important to focus on the agency you have to create delight in your life—and the lives of those around you. You can choose to drop the treadmill and instead navigate your current. Simply the act of acknowledging that life is a finite journey can free you to enjoy it more, inspiring you to make the most of the time you have and empowering you to forge your own unique path instead of feeling stuck running in place.
Lykken, David, and Auke Tellegen. "Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon." Psychological Science. v. 7, no. 3 (1996): 186-189.
Sobel, David E. “Death and dying.” The American Journal of Nursing. v. 74, no. 1 (1974): 98–99.