Stepping off the hedonic treadmill

How happy are you?Something was wrong.

It was a crisp, clear September night. I was walking along the Hudson River, heading home through the park after a nice evening  with friends.

And I was unhappy. Instead of focusing on a beautiful walk home after a good day, I was muttering to myself about some detail at work. I stopped short and asked “Why?”

Why was I focusing on a small problem and not on all of the good things?

The hedonic treadmill

That was a few years ago. Since then, I’ve learned that my experience was reasonably normal. Most people, it turns out, have a “happiness set point”. That is, whether you’re an accident victim or a lottery winner, you tend to revert to the same level of happiness you were at before.

“The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the supposed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.”

To make matters worse, people tend to focus on the negative, just as I was doing.

“The notion of “historical neglect”, that people tend to focus more on negative emotions than positive emotions, can become a great detriment to improving our happiness set point. Negative emotions require more attention and are remembered better, overshadowing any positive experiences that may even outnumber negative experiences.”

So, day after day, most of us dwell on the problems and issues we have and, no matter what happens, we’re as happy as we’re ever going to be.

A cause for optimism

But while research shows your particular happiness point is influenced by genetics, studies also show you can change it. The search for happiness has lead to more research and more research has lead to more books. Here are 10 of the most popular.

“The Art of Happiness”“Stumbling on Happiness”“Happiness: Essential Mindful Practices”“The How of Happiness”“Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” “The Happiness Project”“The Happiness Advantage”“The Happiness Hypothesis”“Real Happiness”“Authentic Happiness”.

There’s even a movie called, appropriately, “Happy”.

The good news is that all of this material agrees on the same basic formula for being happy.

How to be Happy

One of the simplest, most useful summaries of what we know about happiness is available from one of the best medical institutions in the US, the Mayo Clinic.

“Only 10 percent or so of the variation in people’s reports of happiness can be explained by differences in their circumstances. It appears that the bulk of what determines happiness is due to personality and — more importantly — thoughts and behaviors that can be changed.

So, yes, you can learn how to be happy — or at least happier.

Although you may have thought, as many people do, that happiness comes from being born rich or beautiful or living a stress-free life, the reality is that people who have wealth, beauty or less stress are not happier on average than those of who don’t enjoy those blessings.

People who are happy seem to intuitively know that their happiness is the sum of their life choices, and their lives are built on the following pillars:

Devoting time to family and friends

Appreciating what they have

Maintaining an optimistic outlook

Feeling a sense of purpose

Living in the moment”

My own first step

My problem was that this knowledge wasn’t helping me. After reading the books and watching the documentaries, nothing changed. Until a few months ago.

Instead of just wanting to be happy, I tried developing new habits to be happy. A few months ago, I wrote about some new things I was trying. Watching a video each morning on cultivating a sense of gratitude. Meditating a few times a week. For the first time, I even served food at a wonderful food bank.

Over time, to my utterly pleasant surprise, I noticed a difference. I noticed I was a bit calmer. More grateful for things and, well, happier. It was as if, just as the research showed, my new habits could change how my brain worked.

Now, I haven’t reached some exalted state. I still multi-task too much instead of being fully present, I may be the world’s worst meditator and I don’t give enough yet. But I’m happy-er.

My experience helped me understand why the Mayo Clinic’s prescription for happiness isn’t a pill. It’s “practice, practice, practice.”

And while I’ve only taken a step, it’ll be a lovely walk, and this time I’ll be sure to enjoy it.

About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Self awareness and improvement and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Stepping off the hedonic treadmill

  1. Wonderful post John! Thank you for telling us about the hedonic treadmill, and I especially love hearing about your focus on happy habits. At my new job, I have been learning how to help people focus on habits. One of the keys is to very specifically define the habit. “Feel a sense of purpose” is too vague, just like “eat healthier” is too vague. Your “volunteer at the food bank” is much more specific, achievable, and tangible. Bravo!

  2. Mandy says:

    Interesting – thanks John! I’m sure most people can relate to this on a personal level. But within a work environment how you can help people to individually and collectively “feel a sense of purpose” – as per the previous comment from Trisha – is an interesting area too. Not necessarily directly related, but I just happened to read this shortly after reading your blog and it’s on a similar theme so I thought I’d share! Of interest to me as I live in France…

    • moyramackie says:

      Mandy, I was going to make the very same connection to that Guardian article! The whole discussion here is refreshing having just come away from reading posts and comments on an HBR article about happiness.
      There posters were focussing on companies providing the happiness quotient. I think it is revealing that John your sources of happiness have come from personal actions in your private life. You haven’t sat around waiting for your company to “make you happy”. I know you have obviously taken control of your career too. Perhaps a proactive mind set and applying to both personal and professional life is key?
      And thank you for adding a new word to my vocab – “Hedonic”!

      • John Stepper says:

        Thank you Mandy, Sam, and Moyra for the links. (And Trisha for the “Bravo!” :-))

        It’s interesting reading. And yet…it all seems to miss the point. “the French are unhappy.” “Your organization is unhappy.” And you can almost imagine the superficial happiness campaigns to improve things. (“Free yogurt in the cafeteria!”)

        At a personal level, there’s no substitute for purposefully practicing the things listed in the post (as it took me 48 years to find out). At a company level, there’s no substitute for creating an environment that taps into the basic human motivators: autonomy, mastery, purpose, and community.

        Of those 4, I think we can readily create environments where people get better at what they do (mastery,), make meaningful connections at work (community), and have some control over their work (autonomy).

        Purpose is often viewed as the most difficult. We look to great leaders to frame a purpose. We quote Kennedy’s speeches about landing a man on the moon. And, sometimes, that’s what we need. But books from “Man’s Search for Meaning” to “Flow” have shown us we can derive meaning – a sense of purpose – from almost any kind of work, especially if we have the other three things right.

        If your work is tied to an obviously good mission, that’s great. For most of us, though, I’d argue that learning and developing relationships with intrinsic benefits are enough of a purpose to motivate and fulfill us.

      • Sam G says:

        John I agree with what you said in your reply to Moyra’s comment.
        Put another way that I’ve seen it expressed before… while there is a lot of talk about “happiness”, this is sort of a catch all term that doesn’t quite encapsulate what perhaps the “meaning of life” (ok now I’m starting to stretch!)
        It is more along the lines of the factors you have quoted. I particularly like the concept of flow, and one could do worse than measure their happiness / success / whatever by looking at how much of the time they are in “Flow”.

  3. Sam G says:

    An article this morning in the New York Times on almost the same topic, slightly different perspective!

  4. Thank you for the great post!! As an entrepreneur, I definitely have to deal with a lot of ups and downs in my daily life, and that definitely forces me to find ways to have a positive attitude towards life. I loved your article, and it gave me some great food for thought. 🙂

  5. While this is an excellent article, and while well worth the time it takes to read, I think the thought can be reduced to one simple concept ,f you are so inclined. “Most people are about as happy as they make up their mind to be.” As for myself; I am one miserable misanthrope and perfectly happy to remain so. It makes life so much easier. And cuts down on the disappointments.

  6. Pingback: My love/hate relationship with video games part 2 – The Media « Exposing my socks to the world

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