Why We're Never Satisfied | The Hedonic Treadmill


“We act as though comfort and luxury were the chief requirements of life, when all we need to make us happy is something to be enthusiastic about.” - Charles Kingsley.

There is a scientific reason for why people achieve success, fame, and luxury yet fail to achieve long-term happiness. The term psychologists use for this is called: hedonic adaptation. 

According to Psychology today, hedonic adaptation by definition is: “The tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative life changes.” Let’s quickly note that hedonic adaptation can also occur with negative changes or experiences, which I happen to see as a good thing. However, for the sake of this post, I’m focusing on the hedonic adaptation that occurs when we experience “positive” things. Like material luxuries, job promotions, marriage, etc. 

For instance, let’s say you buy your first new luxury car. You worked hard to reach this milestone in your life. As you’re handed over the keys, you can’t help but smile from ear to ear. You drive off, hands gripping the wheel, feeling like nothing in the universe can ever stop you. Perhaps for weeks you feel this way each time you get into your new car. But after about a month, those feelings of satisfaction and happiness dwindle. All of a sudden, your new car isn’t as exciting to you anymore. Eventually, it won’t bring you any joy at all. You may even find yourself dreaming of what you’ll drive next instead of appreciating the luxury you have. 

They’ve even done studies on lottery winners, which concluded that winners’ satisfaction from their financial gains subsided completely after an average of 1.5 years. 

Hedonic adaptation, or the hedonic treadmill as it’s commonly referenced, can happen to anyone regardless of status or age. Celebrity or average joe, we all experience some level of this phenomenon in our own unique ways.

Thankfully, there are psychologists/happiness experts that have helped us identify the reasons for this ever pacing satisfaction treadmill. Kennon Sheldon & Sophia Lyubomirsky published a white paper to help us understand the reasons why our moments of pleasure seem to dwindle so quickly. 

Reason #1. We stop feeling the excitement of our newfound pleasures. 

Let’s say you get married. All that time leading up to the event there’s excitement and anticipation. The grand event occurs and in the blink of an eye, it’s over. Normal life resumes and reality sets in. Many newlyweds even report feeling depressed after the excitement of the wedding subsides and the satisfaction fades away. This happens in relationships as well - in fact, many relationships fail after approximately the 2 year point- when most of the excitement has faded away.

Maybe you move into a new house and it’s a grade above all the rest. At first, you marvel at your granite countertops and shiny hardwood floors. It doesn’t take long before all of the factors that used to excite you about this new home just become the new “normal.”

You might lose weight, causing others to notice you differently. Compliments may fly from every direction. You may experience more attention from the opposite sex. Soon enough, the 15lbs of weight you lost isn’t good enough anymore. Instead of being a size 6, you’d “be happier if you were a 4.”

You could receive a well-deserved promotion. One that you worked hard for. But after the champagne celebrations have ended and the congratulatory sentiments are over - the stress of your added responsibilities cloud the previous joy you worked so hard to feel.

Does that make sense?

Reason #2. We raise the bar on our desired pleasures as soon as we receive them. 

As a result of reason #1, when we achieve our desired pleasures (material items, weight loss, a new job, a promotion, a fancier car, etc) we raise our mental bar regarding what we believe will make us happy. 

I am guilty of this in practically every way that I mentioned above - Including the car scenario. I’ve heard myself say, as if from standing outside of my own body, “I don’t know what I’ll do when it comes time to sell the BMW- there’s no way I could go back to driving anything else.”  All of a sudden “normal” cars weren’t good enough for me anymore. As embarrassed I am to admit that I've said such a nonsensical remark, the first part of solving a problem is recognizing you have one, right? ;) 

The good news is, you can short circuit the satisfaction treadmill by making small changes in your life. It’s not easy, but if you’re honest with yourself and want to find longer sustaining satisfaction,  escaping the hedonic treadmill is a good place to start. 

Let me preface by saying that I DO NOT believe you should stop aiming for success. Go for that promotion, get in physical shape, buy that fancy purse, drive that Audi. Just don't confuse these things for long-term happiness. You will always be searching for more.

Here are areas you can focus on in order to shift your perspective, leading to joy that sustains over long periods of time. 

+Spend quality time with people you enjoy

Let’s face it, we’ve all had those toxic friends that we’ve needed to break up with. Think about those in your circle and ask yourself if you feel joy when you are with them. If not, limit your exposure to those people. Then, make it a habit to spend time with the people who bring you true happiness. According to a Harvard Study of Adult Development, “the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships with other people.” 

The environment in which you spend with those who make you happy does not matter. Just make time for these people. Traveling with friends is a great investment of your time if you are looking to increase happiness in your life. After all, our experiences shape our happiness, not our belongings.

+Boost your health and well-being

Want long-term happiness? Then exercise, nutrition, and rest are not optional. We’ve all heard the phrase “if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything.” This could not be more true. When we feel physically healthy, it resonates in everything we do. Proof of this exists when we feel sick - all of a sudden our surroundings become much less enjoyable. Start small and experiment with ways to make your body and mind feel better, and you will see the positive results in every facet of your life.

+Never stop pursuing education

Learning and trying new things are the keys to keeping our minds fresh and our ego’s feeling accomplished. Is there an instrument you’ve always wanted to try? Go for it. Want to learn a new language? GO! Always wanted to try a painting class? You get what I’m saying! Challenge yourself. Make a bucket list of all the things you’ve always wanted to try and do something new once a month.

+Jump off the comparison train

Nowadays this has never been more relevant and damaging to our well-being. Comparing yourself to the lives of others is one of the most toxic things you can do. I am guilty of this constantly. Jumping off the comparison train is like a training a muscle in reverse. The more you recognize that you’re comparing, stop yourself. Soon, you'll notice the comparisons weakening - until you no longer notice them.

Throughout your life there will always be people who are smarter, more attractive, and/or wealthier than you. But your life is not theirs and should not be compared as such. You have no idea what their set values are, what they’ve sacrificed to achieve those things, what challenges they've had to overcome, or what their actual level of satisfaction is. Your friend that makes way more money than you might also have much higher stress levels, work longer hours, and spend less time with friends and family. A friend that had an over-the-top extravagant wedding might actually be neck deep in debt, not to mention miserable. You know what I mean? You really never know what is going on behind the comparison, so stop! 

+Work to make an income that fits your needs

What I mean is, work to make enough money to cover your basic needs plus some luxuries. The minute you have enough money to cover your needs and a few luxuries, you reach what’s called a point of diminishing returns. This means, every added dollar you make will fail to increase your happiness and will actually cause you more stress and worry. Know your monetary point of diminishing returns will allow you to decrease unnecessary consumption and increase long-term savings… Ultimately, leading to longer-term satisfaction. You don’t NEED to be rich - isn’t that refreshing?

+Remove unnecessary stressors

Stress is a natural part of life. But all of us have unnecessary stressors that are controllable. Have a negative friend who always brings his/her stormy dark clouds around you? BYE! Are you always upset about your messy house? Minimalize and/or hire help to come over and clean every other month (it’s really not that expensive, you guys). Hate your job? Start searching for a new one. Stuck in shitty traffic everyday? Look into moving closer to work. Is your phone always dying? Buy an extra charger for your car or one of those portable chargers. Do you get the point? Make a list of the unnecessary stressors in your life that you HAVE control over, and start finding solutions to those stressors - no matter how big or small. 

Hope you liked this one you guys. If so, leave me a comment below :)