The hedonic treadmill and happiness
Have you ever dreamed of buying a new car, winning a lot of money, being promoted at work, being able to travel to exotic destinations or finding a partner to share life with? Do you remember fantasizing about how happy you would be if you won a million dollars? Some might call these chasing rainbows. And if one of those dreams came true, did it really increase your happiness? If so, how long did this boost in happiness last? Did you immediately start off wishing, dreaming or searching again – as if this wasn’t enough? If so, you were on what’s called the hedonic treadmill (a.k.a. hedonic adaptation), a term coined by Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell back in 1971. According to their theory, “the more money you make, the greater your expectations and desires, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.” Regardless of what happens, people return to their baseline levels of happiness. The same principle also applies to challenging events. When people experience a loss or setback, the negative feelings that accompany the event start to fade away over time, allowing people to recover and return to their baseline state in time even though it might be different. While there’s an initial uptick in happiness or sadness, these feelings dissipate, and after a while, you’ll be back at the level of happiness or sadness you were at before.
Stepping off the treadmill
So, can we find happiness without busting our chops to do it? Can we step off the hedonic treadmill and still find happiness? The majority of meditation research tends to focus on mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness, which is one of several types of meditation, is known to promote feelings of wellbeing and positivity. Mindfulness can quiet your mind through intentional breathing and allow you to focus on the present by helping you pay careful attention to what’s happening around you and in your body. Researchers believe that this kind of mind-training practice changes passing emotional states and reshapes personality traits by helping us learn about our own minds. When you practice mindfulness meditation, you begin to get rid of false assumptions about what leads to happiness and wellbeing. Research indicates that meditation may help us gain insights that revamp our outlooks on ourselves and others and increase empathy and compassion.
Researchers have found that circumstances don’t account for the majority of a person’s happiness. Each of us has a set point for happiness, i.e., a “genetically determined predisposition for happiness that’s responsible for roughly 50% of the differences in happiness from person to person. So, what does this mean in practice? It means that personality plays a role in setting a happiness point and that wellbeing is somewhat heritable, as strange as that may seem. Consequently, different personality traits may predispose individuals to different levels of wellbeing. The idea of a set point seems to indicate that each person has a single, static baseline of happiness. However, Diener, Suh, Lucas and Smith’s findings argue that happiness is composed of several factors that contribute to wellbeing and that they sometimes move in different directions.
Recent research suggests that some people have an inherently optimistic nature. In other words, they seem much happier than others, regardless of what’s happening to them. It all depends on how you interpret and respond to events in your life (think mindset and resilience). The way you interpret an event (threat or challenge) and the way you continue to think about the event – dwelling on it negatively or finding it humorous – can significantly impact your outlook. Sonja Lyubomirsky, who conducted extensive research on this subject, found that “happy individuals perceive, interpret, and subsequently think about life events and life circumstances in more positive ways than negative ones (1998). These differences in cognitive processes may, in turn, reinforce and promote people’s affective dispositions.”
Happiness can last longer
Despite the conclusion often drawn from the initial studies on this subject that we can’t bring about lasting change to our levels of wellbeing and life satisfaction, there’s ample evidence that certain types of happiness last longer than others. The pleasure derived from selfless acts, for example, outlasts physical pleasures. Moreover, additional research has found that we may be able to increase our long-term sense of wellbeing through practicing mindfulness, gratitude and investing in relationships. When we learn to appreciate the simple pleasures that come along, we tend to hang onto happiness a little longer. It’s not having what you want; it’s wanting what you already have. A more Zen-like interpretation might be, once you learn when enough is enough, there will always be enough.