Happiness and the Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is defined as the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. It answers the question of why getting a pay raise does not necessarily make you happier. It might initially, but you’ll quickly go back to feeling the same shortly after. Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau explains it beautifully.

“Since these conveniences by becoming habitual had almost entirely ceased to be enjoyable, and at the same time degenerated into true needs, it became much more cruel to be deprived of them than to possess them was sweet, and men were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

As our financial condition improves, we become more willing to spend and gradually our wants become our needs. While spending our hard-earned money on ourselves is totally fine, this leads to our happiness tapering off and returning to its baseline state. Money is just one example of the hedonic treadmill in our lives.

The hedonic treadmill seems to be something that hinders our pursuit of happiness, but is there a way around this? As I was pondering about this, I had an epiphany! Gratitude! Cliche, yes. But hear me out. If anything, I think the hedonic treadmill really cements the importance of gratitude.

Think back to where you were five or ten years ago, and from that perspective look at where you are now. You might notice that there are many things you have that you never did before. Think about how you would have felt back then if you had everything you have now. The old you would have been so delighted!

This is also why it’s important to begin our prayers with thanksgiving. Before we start asking for more, we should first take a step back and reflect on all that we have already been blessed with.

Gratitude might be the perfect counter to the hedonic treadmill, or perhaps it isn’t. Either way, the eternal question still stands: What is the key to happiness? I don’t presume to know the answer, but I’m just gonna continue experimenting and questioning things.