The hedonic treadmill is described as ‘the tendency of people to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness even if a major positive or negative life change has taken place.’ It gives a name to the idea that you don’t have to keep moving further along a path to be happy.
Usually, when something negative happens, we tend to become sad but return to normalcy because we learn to adapt. However, we sometimes forego the adaptation skill and get into depression.
“There is always a saturation point. No matter how much people try to be happy, their level of happiness increases slightly and comes back to the same level. This is usually the case with materialistic gains. You cannot be happy beyond a point and you will, sooner or later, come down to the same level of happiness you started off with,” says Dr Ravi Prakash, psychiatrist at Columbia Asia.
He gives an example: A person moved to a well-furnished flat that had the view of the ocean and a good parking spot. He felt happy but after a while, he realised that he felt the same amount of happiness he did when he lived in his previous flat that overlooked the busy traffic,” he adds.
The excessive use of social media might have something to do with the tendency not to understand this basic idea.
Dr Roshan Jain, a UK-qualified specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy, says, “Social media seems to have become the comparison graph to one’s happiness. We are unhappy because of the hedonistic relativism that has exposed one to other people’s lives.”
If evolution has taught us something, it’s that we can find happiness through anything. “When our ancestors lived as nomads, they were happy with the food and water they found. We are lucky enough not have to wander but can sit in our chair and order food. Yet we have something else to be unhappy about,” he says.
Priyanka, co-founder of Inspiron Psychological Well Being Centre, says, “We can either choose to set goals and achieve them or involve in unhealthy coping habits. You can choose by expressing your emotions to someone you trust or maintain a personal diary and monitor those thoughts. Listen to yourself and pay more attention so that you can solve the problem yourself. And of course, seeking professional help, either through a therapist or counsellor, is recommended.”
What hedonic treadmill means
Ambition is a strange thing. When you are working towards your goal, you feel a sense of satisfaction. But more often than not, this happiness is short-lived. Each success leads you to crave more. This pattern is what is known as the ‘hedonic treadmill’.
You buy new clothes and your happiness surges. But the elation wears off soon, and you want a new watch. After the new watch, you find your happiness hasn’t really gone up: it is right back to where it was.
Levels of happiness
An article on the website Positive Psychology Program recalls a study that compared people who won a large lottery and accident victims who suffered devastaging severe paralysis. Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman published a study in 1987 titled ‘Is happiness relative?’ It showed, in the long term, neither group appeared to be happier than the other. Of course, at first there were strong emotional reactions of happiness and sadness, respectively, but effects didn’t reveal long lasting and both groups shortly reverted to their previous level of happiness.
A study examined people who won the lottery for a large amount of money and victims in accidents that resulted in paralysis. In 1987, Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman published the study: “Is happiness relative?”
The research revealed that, in the long term, neither group was happier than the other.