The Hedonic Treadmill and How You Can Jump Off

Are you familiar with the concept of the “hedonic treadmill”? It’s a psychological phenomenon where we quickly adapt to positive changes in our lives, and over time, return to our previous level of happiness. This can make it difficult to achieve lasting happiness, as we are always chasing the next big thing. But, there are ways to jump off this treadmill and achieve greater fulfillment in life. In this blog, we’ll explore the concept of the hedonic treadmill and discuss practical strategies to help you break free from the cycle and live a more fulfilling life.

Key Takeaways

  • Hedonic adaptation is a psychological process that causes us to quickly adapt to positive experiences and return to a “default” state of happiness.
  • Constantly chasing short-term gratification can lead to disappointment, exhaustion, and inefficiency.
  • To jump off the hedonic treadmill, consider setting accountability goals, focusing on meaningful consumption, investing in time-saving services, and prioritizing your physical well-being.
  • Pursuing happiness isn’t frivolous, but it’s important to pursue rewards that will genuinely enrich your life and stop chasing things that will never truly satisfy you.

Table of Contents

What is Hedonic Adaptation?

First, let’s get the jargon word squared away. Hedonic means “relating to pleasant sensations.” Good food, the endorphin rush of acquiring a shiny new gadget, the guilty burst of happiness when you lash out and buy new shoes — these are all examples of hedonic happiness.

Hedonic adaptation refers to our species’ annoying tendency to become accustomed to these kinds of enjoyment in a very short timeframe. We’re hardwired to rapidly return to a “default” state of happiness. Thanks for that, evolution.

The concept of a hedonic treadmill is all about what happens next. You get the treat you crave, it wears off way too fast, so off we go in search of the next prize … and the next one … then the next. You get the idea. It’s an endless unsatisfactory loop of short-term gratification followed by more struggle for the same kind of experience.

But does it matter? After all, a literal treadmill is still good cardio. Maybe this metaphorical contraption we find ourselves on isn’t all that bad?

The Emotional and Psychological Fallout

Let’s break down the implications of our endless hedonic restlessness. And spoilers … it’s not great.

  • Disappointment: Imagine the excitement of opening a treasure chest followed by the disappointment of discovering half a moldy Snickers and a McHappy meal voucher. A repeating pattern of expectation and disappointment is deeply demotivating, and will eventually leave you unwilling to tackle new challenges.
  • Exhaustion: This treadmill is endless. As one fleeting happiness fades and another gleaming prize appears on the horizon, a hedonic happiness junky has little choice but to pick up their pace and keep running.
  • Inefficiency: Short-term happiness goals give you a skewed view of what success looks and feels like. A life in pursuit of easy gains can all too easily lead to a procrastination mindset. You know the deal: I have this important work to do, but first I must sharpen these shockingly blunt pencils.

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How to Stay Off the Hedonic Treadmill

We’ve hopefully established that the hedonic treadmill can have some pretty damaging implications for your emotional and financial well-being if you let it rule your life. The obvious next question is, is it possible to jump off? And if so, how?

  • Ask why: If you’re running toward a milestone you can’t see or define, you’ll never get there. Set a list of accountability goals and check your progress against them.
  • Focus your consumption: Keeping up with the Joneses is a dead-end, and not for the reason you might think. Sure you’ve just added a whole bunch of additional spending to your life if you set your goals by what other people are doing. But you’ll also end up consuming stuff you don’t even particularly care about. Conscious spending is not about saying no to cool stuff because it costs too much. It’s about choosing only the things or experiences that’ll change your life for the better. Focus your resources on what matters to you, and ignore the rest.
  • Buy back your time: Instead of buying possessions, consider investing some of your disposable income in time-saving services. Whether it’s takeout, house cleaning, dog walking, or any of a thousand useful services, every minute you buy for yourself this way can be invested into those hobbies, family time, or learning goals that yield lasting rewards. Learn more from Ramit on 7 ways to buy back your time (Hint: Spend Money).
  • Invest in your health: One of the main predictors of your personal happiness is your physical well-being. By addressing work-life balance and channeling your sense of reward into fitness and health outcomes, you set yourself on a path to long-term happiness.
  • Rotate those hedonic treats: We all have simple treats we enjoy, and there’s nothing wrong with that! But instead of allowing that chocolate donut or computer game purchase to become a weekly phenomenon, use them sparingly and mix it up frequently. This way you gain some hedonic equilibrium and keep things fresh.

It’s important to go easy on yourself! Remember that many of us are pushing against deeply hardwired impulses.

What This All Means for Your Work-Life Balance

As you set work goals, be mindful of how your happiness works. Are you setting a succession of hedonic milestones that never fully deliver on their promise? Or are you defining your success by goals that can deliver a lasting impact?

The other part of the work-life puzzle though is to recognize that pursuing happiness isn’t frivolous or wrong. What better reason to push out your work horizons than the knowledge that all that hard work will allow you to spend lavish sums on things you know you’ll love — that’ll enrich your life? The trick is to spend consciously, to carefully choose those rewards that’ll make the effort worthwhile, and to mercilessly cull out the rest.

Real happiness isn’t an endless treadmill. Pursuing prizes that’ll never truly satisfy you is a self-inflicted lab experiment in futility. But you’re not going to find happiness in perpetual frugality either! That’s just another kind of treadmill with fewer payoffs. You step off life’s hedonic treadmill when you consciously choose to chase after those things that’ll genuinely enrich your life, whether a family vacation, more time with the kids, or whatever floats your figurative boat — yes, even an actual, literal boat.

And the best thing about getting more mindful about happiness? You can finally stop running for its own sake. 

FAQs About Hedonic Treadmill

What are some of the challenges people face when trying to jump off the hedonic treadmill, and how can I stay motivated in my pursuit of long-term happiness?

People may face challenges when trying to jump off the hedonic treadmill, including ingrained habits, pressure from others, fear of missing out, and balancing long-term goals with present enjoyment. To stay motivated, it can be helpful to set specific goals, track progress, find support, focus on positive changes, and practice self-compassion. By doing so, individuals can avoid falling back into old habits and pursue long-term happiness.

How can I invest in my health to jump off the hedonic treadmill?

Investing in your health can be an effective way to jump off the hedonic treadmill. This might involve prioritizing exercise and physical activity, eating a healthy and balanced diet, and getting enough restful sleep each night. Additionally, practicing mindfulness, reducing stress, and engaging in activities that bring you joy and fulfillment can help you cultivate a more positive and sustainable lifestyle. By making your health and well-being a priority, you can reduce your reliance on short-term gratification and achieve greater long-term happiness.

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