Are we really destined to be happy? Regardless of the level of income, why are we not fulfilled? Along with most people, you might also be running on the dreaded “Hedonic Treadmill”.
Coined by Brickman and Campbell in their study “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society (1971)”, the hedonic treadmill describes the human being’s cyclic attempt to happiness.
Happiness might not be the same for everyone. But this theory states that everyone has a personal “baseline” of happiness. And we have a tendency to return to this “baseline” when the effects of good events or bad events become habitual.
For example, Person A receives a big promotion with a hefty salary increase. S/he buys a new car, loans a new house, and upgraded their lifestyle all at once. After 2 weeks, as this becomes their family’s “new normal”, the level of happiness subsides back to their “personal baseline”. Leaving them wanting for more.
On the other hand, Person B, a highly paid employee, was suddenly retrenched because of the recession. Their family slowly took away money drains in their budget and came to sell their possessions to live in a less expensive neighborhood. They are disheartened and felt unhappy for a long time.
After they have been accustomed to their new life, they slowly return to their “personal baseline” of happiness.
This is further confirmed by a study by Brickman, Coates, and Janoff-Bulman in their study “Lottery Winners and Accident Victims: Is Happiness Relative? (1978)”. Both 22 major lottery winners and 29 paraplegics went back to their “personal baseline” of happiness.
This sparked further longitudinal studies to refine the theory like Diener and Fujita’s “Life Satisfaction set point: stability and change (2005)” and Brickman and Campbell’s “Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill: Revising the adaptation theory of well being (2006)”.
The further studies took into account people’s differences in Positive Attachment Relationships, Positive Self Perceptions, Self-Regulatory Skills, Prosocial Behavior, and Positive Outlook in Life.
But barring the psychological technicalities of this theory, what can a normal person do after knowing this human tendency?<
Slowly Upgrade Your Lifestyle
Knowing those moments of happiness might decrease when becoming habitual, we can “manage” our lifestyle inflation by controlling spending.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t spend our increase in earnings at all. Because doing this might urge you to spend so much on a big impulse purchase in the future.
We suggest budgeting a “Play” Account on your salary every month. This allows you to spend everything in this account for anything you want. This avoids that restricting feeling when you limit your spending.
Also, we suggest that, instead of buying and upgrading everything in one go, we should SLOWLY UPGRADE our lifestyle to maximize the happiness one upgrade can give us.
If we can delay and lengthen the time we go back to our “personal baseline”, the more satisfied we would be.
In Case of a Severe Downturn, Downgrade all at Once
People tend to slowly cope up with tragedies. Thereby prolonging the effect before we go back to our “personal baseline”. On the other hand, we swiftly upgrade our lifestyles on strokes of fortune, diminishing its effect.
Why not do the opposite? When tragedies come by, we should immediately downgrade our lifestyle all at once. This makes the coping up time to relatively lessen.
Going Beyond Material Things
We may have differences in our “personal baselines”. But then, the inner workings of ourselves may affect our constructs of happiness. It is not easy to “heal” ourselves from this seemingly endless cycle of discontentment.
Simple exercise and yoga such as the loving-kindness meditation can help break this tragic chain. There is even a study by Mochon, Norton, Ariely (Getting Off the Hedonic Treadmill, One Step at a Time: The Impact of Religious Practice and Exercise on Well-Being) that tested this claim.
In addition, a gratitude journal would help shift your focus. Focusing on things to be thankful for can improve overall outlook in life. Ultimately, leading to a hopefully more contented life.
With this new knowledge, we have a further understanding of our tendencies. We may have differences in our concept of happiness. But one thing is for certain, the journey to pursue such true happiness is not in vain.
I hope we find the happiness we are looking for.