The Hedonic Treadmill


September 22, 2014 by Brian

Hedonic-TreadmillWe surveyed the room before the start of the meeting and no one had ever heard of The Hedonic Treadmill.  Whew!  Glad I wasn’t the only one.

This was one of those nights where the conversation was so much broader, and better, than the video that writing a blog about it just isn’t sufficient.  Probably safe to say…it was was a “had to be there” kind of thing.

So, what is the Hedonic Treadmill?  This following is from  Here is a link to the full article:

The technical definition
The hedonic treadmill is a theory that people return to a relatively stationary level of happiness, sometimes considered a happiness “set point.” Although efforts or interventions to improve happiness have a transient effect, individuals inevitably return to their original happiness set point after a short period of time.

Huh, what does that mean?
You essentially have a set level of happiness where you consistently remain. When good things happen, that level of happiness can spike up. When bad things happen, that level of happiness can dip down. After good and bad events in your life, you eventually return to your set level of happiness.

Here is the video that kicked off the meeting:  Love the part about No-Name Cola!


We read the following from an article titled “How to Reset Your Happiness Set Point.”  You can find the entire article here. Or, here:

“The set-point theory of happiness suggests that our level of subjective well-being is determined primarily by heredity and by personality traits ingrained in us early in life and as a result remains relatively constant throughout our lives. Our level of happiness may change transiently in response to life events, but then almost always returns to its baseline level as we habituate to those events and their consequences over time. Habituation, a growing body of evidence now tells us, occurs even to things like career advancement, money, and marriage.”

The point is that there are things that we constantly pursue that, in the end, do NOTHING to increase our level of happiness.  Just like being on a treadmill, we end up in exactly the same place that we started.

We broke into two groups, each with their own list to create and define.  The first group created a list of things that we (men) pursue that do NOT permanently increase our overall happiness.  We then compared their list, to the list created by the psychology professionals and discussed the statistics of each.  They are:

  • Beauty
  • Money
  • Sunshine
  • Children
  • Education
  • Choice

Children don’t’ make you happy?  What???  Yeah…. We had fun with this one.  Consider the following from

Parents are unhappy. I’ve checked, and for every subgroup of the population I analyzed, parents report being less happy than similarly situated non-parents.

Parents also make a sacrifice – in choosing to raise children, they intentionally or not are choosing meaning over happiness.

There is a negative correlation between happiness and having kids.  They also showed that kids decrease rather than increase marital satisfaction.

Maybe kids will make you happy. Maybe they won’t. Even if they make your happier… it probably won’t be by much.

So if you’re looking to have children to improve your marriage or to make you happy, like 76% of Pew respondents, who answered that one of the main reasons for their having kids was the ‘joy of children’, you may be making a mistake.

Think about it – you’ll spend thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars raising your children. If you spent that same time meditating, exercising, and strengthening your social relationships, and learning new skills, you’d be guaranteed to be happier.

Takeaway: Kids are for meaning and purpose. Friends and vacations are for happiness.

The second group created a list of things that DO permanently increase our happiness set point.  They are:

  • Having A Gratitude Journal
  • New Experiences
  • Serving Others
  • Having Faith
  • Increasing Confidence through Personal Accomplishment

Here is an explanation of why serving others is such a valuable tool for improving our own happiness set point.  This is also from the Psychology Today article link from earlier.

According to one such study that analyzed data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Survey, a collection of statistics representing the largest and longest-standing series of observations on happiness in the world, the trait most strongly associated with long-term increases in life satisfaction is, in fact, a persistent commitment to pursuing altruistic goals. That is, the more we focus on compassionate action, on helping others, the happier we seem to become in the long run.

What’s more, according to another study, altruism doesn’t just correlate with an increase in happiness; it actually causes it—at least in the short term. When psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky had students perform five acts of kindness of their choosing per week over the course of six weeks, they reported a significant increase in their levels of happiness relative to a control group of students who didn’t.

But why would creating value for others boost our happiness set-point beyond the point at which our heredity has set it when things like career advancement, money, and marriage don’t? One possibility is that the more value we create for others, the more value we assign ourselves. Helping others, in other words, enhances our self-esteem. On the other hand, if the reason that value creation increases long-term happiness is only because it enhances our self-esteem, then career advancement and wealth accumulation (which often enhance our self-esteem) should increase our long-term happiness set point, too. But they don’t. So maybe creating value for others doesn’t increase our long-term happiness as much because it enhances our self-esteem as it does our sense of purpose.

Which led us into a discussion of the difference between Purpose and Happiness.  This was way too complex to describe in a blog post.

Until next time.

One thought on “The Hedonic Treadmill

  1. Bill Bramer says:

    Interesting. Ah the “pursuit” of happiness.

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