Could you imagine spending every waking moment of your life walking on a treadmill that never stops? Would you be tired? Happy? Stressed? Have you ever been really excited about getting something new only to see it become unused or lay to waste after a few weeks or months? Are you as excited about your car or cell phone now as your were two years ago when you purchased it? Do the things we buy and the lifestyle we accumulate over time actually make us happier? Was there a point in your life where you had nothing but you were genuinely excited about life? I honestly think understanding hedonic adaption can be one of the most important concepts that affects both our monetary well being and also our overall happiness.
What Is It?
The concept of a hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaption, refers to the 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. -Rosenbloom.
Basically, humans adapt to both good and bad very quickly. I am always amazed at how flexible we are. Bad times are rarely as terrible as they sound. And our dreams of the best times rarely meet their lofty expectations. Products and purchases often make us happy for a short time but the effects wear off as we quickly adapt with heightened expectations. When it comes to money, often we simply increase our lifestyle in tandem with any increase in our income. It reminds me of the often used joke that people celebrate a $500 raise with a $600 car payment.
Anticipation of the future often makes the treadmill run in the background of our minds before we even encounter opportunities to turn up the speed. It seems like everyone you talk to has some idea of what they want their life to look like in ten years. Or moreover, what they want to have in ten years. Sure, as soon as we get just a little bit more money we can buy nicer groceries, we can get a fancier car, maybe a slightly nicer house, in a slightly better neighborhood. How about that new cell phone, or that romantic vacation; yeah, someday I’ll have enough money for that. What is even funnier is to look back a few years. When you finished school, or got married, most likely you had dreams of what you wanted to have. If I just had a little house to call my own. Oh, to have my own room or bathroom. To have a little baby and a new car. What happens when we get all of those things? Well, for most of us, the tendency is to immediately begin thinking about what’s next. There is no concept of enough. Enough is fine until we see something better.
So, what does it look like to jump off the treadmill? I think the pivotal point in my life that honestly started my paradigm shift happened in a little garden in downtown Makati. I moved to the Philippines after I graduated college and one of my best friends happened to be a lady who worked in the bottom floor of my apartment building. One afternoon we were discussing life and she made a fascinating comment. She said her greatest desire was: “To live a simple life”. Just have a few kids and live in the province by the ocean. Maybe farm and fish a little; just like her parents did. Have enough money for some rice and lots of time to spend with family and friends. The idea seemed so counterintuitive at the time. The American Dream of success is to accumulate as much as possible. Maxed out 401ks, the best schools, perfect houses in perfect neighborhoods with perfect grass. A simple life? Really?
That was the point when my brain examined the idea of turning down the speed of the hedonic treadmill. The first step for me was thinking through the idea of why. What are the things that are truly important to me. Money? Influence? Power? Family? Time? Stress? If you ask most middle class people, what is the most important thing in their life, they would never say money. But if you actually examine what commands their time, attention, expectations, worries and fears: It’s money. And we let our lifestyles inflate to the point where we must give in to the demands of money to keep up with our house, job, cars, hobbies, friends, children’s activities and appearance.
Jumping off the hedonic treadmill for me meant one thing: Simplifying my life. I started with finding a job, not based on money (in fact, the lowest salary of all the offers I had) but based on the non-monitary lifestyle it would bring me. But more than that, it meant adjusting and communicating my desires and expectations with my friends and spouse. I ended up getting rid of a lot of the stuff in my life but made time for my family and commitments that are truly valuable. By simplifying my life I was able to cut through the marketing and false portrayal of the good life and identify what happiness really means to me.
When you become aware that most of the people around you are spending their time and money chasing things that don’t make them happier, it makes it easier to step off. When you see the waste and stress that accompanies the life on a treadmill it’s easier to step off. When you see others with plenty of stuff, but no control, it makes it easier to step off. What keeps you on the hedonic treadmill?
I’ll Miss Out
What happens when everyone else is on the treadmill? Relationships keep people on the treadmill. If you’ve ever been through suburbia, just ask the joneses about it. They have bigger houses, fancier cars, crazier vacations, and better stuff for their kids. Does it make them happy? Truly happy? Are you under the assumption it would make you happier? How long does it take to get used to granite countertops? Does stepping off the treadmill mean you will not be spending time with certain people? Try and find community with people who are looking to simplify. You might be surprised at how many rich people you know wish they could work less.
Am I on it?
When you start discussing the concept with people you find that more often than not people never think about it. They feel like it is normal to live in a state of constant wanting and longing. The nagging voice that something bigger, faster and better would make you just a little more happy. To find out if you are on it simply look back at your life. Do you have more stuff now than you did 5, 10 years ago? Do you have many of the same dreams you had years ago? And are you happy? Are you happier now than you were. Or, has your happiness stayed consistent even though your stress, obligations, possessions and stuff have grown over the years?
Jumping off the hedonic treadmill ends with this: No additional amount of money would change your desires or lifestyle. And sadly, most American’s will never get to this point. Even if they had more money than they could currently imagine now. This line of thinking is what keeps people working sixty hours a week in a job they hate to buy stuff for a family they don’t see. There is more to life than that.
For a little perspective, check out the documentary Happy on Nextflix. And as harsh as it sounds, I’m not completely opposed to nice things. I have nice things and I enjoy them. I’m lucky. But I’m also aware that the pursuit of more nice things won’t make me as happy as I would expect. Spend the time to figure out what make you truly happy. Instead of being controlled by the hedonic treadmill, leverage its principles to grow your own contentment. Slow Down. Stop thinking so much about what could be and spend some time being thankful for what you have.