What is the Hedonic Treadmill?
The hedonic treadmill refers to the idea that people’s subjective happiness levels stay around a given set point throughout their life, and are not permanently affected by major positive or negative life events.
This is unintuitive, because people tend to think that winning the lottery would make them permanently happier, or becoming severely disabled would make them permanently more miserable. However, research shows that lottery winners usually experience a temporary boost in happiness and then revert to their original happiness levels. Similarly, people who suffer debilitating accidents go through a period of grieving, but then often return to their original levels.
“Hedonic” refers to pleasure or happiness (from the Greek hedone, “pleasure”). The same Greek word gives us “hedonism”, the philosophy or lifestyle of pursuing pleasure. The “treadmill” description refers to the idea of having to keep moving just to stay in the same place. Many people’s life paths are characterized by working hard in order to progress in their careers, grow in wealth and prestige, and get a bigger house and a better standard of living; and yet their subjective happiness will often remain the same despite these improvements.
The hedonic treadmill applies to groups of people as well as individuals: research shows that as a country’s wealth increases, its citizens do not report any increase in their subjective well-being.
The hedonic treadmill is related to the idea of habituation: that people become accustomed to an ongoing stimulus and stop consciously noticing it. For example, you might walk into a building that smells strongly, but after spending some time in the building, you stop noticing the smell. If you spend long enough in the smelly building, you might even grow so used to the smell that you think the outside smells strange when you eventually leave! Similarly, many people can become accustomed to background noises such as traffic or ticking clocks, and stop consciously noticing them. (There is an apocryphal story about someone who lived near a clock which loudly chimed the hour, and he slept through the sound of the chimes every night, but one night the 3am chime failed to sound, and he leapt out of bed shouting “What was that?”)
It is more difficult for people on the autistic spectrum or those with sensory processing difficulties to “tune out” stimuli such as smells, background noises and flashing lights. Neurotypical people’s brains can adjust to the idea that the stimulus is ongoing and is not new information, and so stop presenting it to the conscious mind; but some people’s brains are less able to do that, so they keep noticing the background noise or flashing light, and may become annoyed or fatigued by it more quickly.
Habituation is also illustrated by the old story about boiling a frog: if you put a frog into boiling water, it will leap out, but if you put it into comfortably warm water and gradually raise the temperature, it will stay put and allow itself to be boiled alive. In the same way, people will notice if they are suddenly thrust into an intolerable situation, and will take steps to change it, but if their situation gradually gets worse, they may not notice and may just put up with it. Each little change for the worse is small enough to be ignored, and habituation means that the new slightly-worse circumstances become the new normal, and you become accustomed to them. If this continues, a person may end up putting up with a really bad life situation, and the hedonic treadmill theory suggests that their subjective happiness might not be any lower than before the start of the decline.
However, the hedonic treadmill theory also implies that the opposite can happen: a person’s circumstances can get gradually better, while they habituate to the changes and remain unaffected by them, so their subjective happiness level remains at the level it was before the improvements began.
The Hedonic Treadmill and Decision Making
Having the hedonic treadmill in your conceptual toolbox can guide you toward more rational decision-making. For example, it can free you to step back from the rat race and not chase increases in wealth and status at all costs, because you understand that the happiness they bring will not last, and you will end up feeling much the same on an income of $80k as on an income of $40k, so it is probably not worth giving up other good things in your life to achieve it.
Secondly, you need not live in fear of adversity. You may dread becoming poor or disabled, or even just growing old; but if and when those things happen, it will not destroy your life forever. It will make you unhappy for a while, and then you will habituate and it will become the new normal.
Thirdly, the concept of the hedonic treadmill can help you develop virtues like consistency and faithfulness, by teaching you that habituating to a good thing doesn’t mean it stopped being good. Sometimes people leave good marriages or good careers because they no longer feel the same thrill they felt at the beginning. But understanding the hedonic treadmill means understanding that the subjective good feelings may dwindle even if the marriage or the work is objectively as good as it ever was, and so the fading of excitement should not be taken as in indication that it is no longer any good, or as a reason to leave.
Criticisms of the Hedonic Treadmill
Happiness is subjective, and therefore hard to measure. If you ask someone to rate their happiness on a numerical scale, how is that scale defined? It might be up to individual interpretation. Consider two people in a hospital ward recovering from an injury, who are both asked to rate their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. One of them grew up in a war zone, so rates their current situation as an 8, because they are well cared for, with warmth and shelter and three meals a day, and are not in danger of death. The other has had a more privileged life so far, and rates their current situation a 2, because they are confined to a bed, uncomfortable and bored. Even between people who have had similar life experiences so far, discrepancies in happiness ratings may also simply reflect individual temperament: whether someone is an optimist or a pessimist, whether they focus on the positives or negatives in their situation.