In this article, we explain the Hedonic Treadmill.
Have you ever felt like happiness is always just out of reach? As if you only need to achieve your next goal or pay off your next debt, and then you would be happy!
This is what being on the Hedonic Treadmill feels like; unfortunately, many of us are on it without even realizing it.
In this article, I go over some ways to help you get off the Hedonic Treadmill and avoid hedonic adaptation, which will likely improve your happiness.
To understand the hedonic treadmill, we first have to understand hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation is the habit of our happiness level returning to a stable level despite any positive or negative changes in our life.
This “adaptation” helps us deal with the curveballs that life sometimes throws at us, but it can also create an internal struggle for happiness.
For example, if something terrible happens to us that makes us unhappy, our mind can adapt and, after a while, bring us back to our base happiness level.
This is a situation where hedonic adaptation is helping us.
On the flip side, if something good happens that makes us extremely happy, our minds will still bring us back to our base level of happiness after a while. This is a case where hedonic adaptation can be a bad thing.
Extreme happiness fades and leaves us seeking more happiness again.
Here is another way to break it down:
Good: When Something Bad Happens To Us
Bad: When Something Good Happens To Us
In an ideal world, our minds would only bring us back up to our base level of happiness and not bring us down after something good occurred.
The latter describes the hedonic treadmill.
I've found myself stuck on this for far too long until I ultimately realized I needed to change my mindset.
The Hedonic Treadmill
The hedonic treadmill is best described as our mind's constant struggle to desire more while thinking it will lead to more happiness. This is because once we reach something that makes us happy, as explained earlier, our minds tend to return to our baseline happiness.
This is until we find the next “desire” to make us happier.
The desire can be anything like an item (consumerism), a state of physical health (weight loss), or even financial (more money).
The hedonic treadmill is just another form of hedonic adaptation.
How I Realized I Was On The Hedonic Treadmill
The example above about wanting to be in a specific financial situation was how I realized I was on the hedonic treadmill. I found myself in a constant internal struggle between striving to reach financial independence as fast as possible and simultaneously trying to acknowledge the progress I had made at the time.
Specifically, I remember thinking about how happy I would be once my student loans were paid off. I felt like once that happened, I would be happy!
I wouldn't be able to fully pay off those student loans for another 3 years.
I kept thinking…
Is It Really Going To Take 3 More Years Until I Can Be Happy?
Then it hit me. I was happy when my student loans crossed below $100,000.
My loan went from $100,346 to $99,346, which felt great!
I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I was excited and motivated that week.
Flash forward to today, and my student loan balance is $51,500. The balance has dropped from $100,000 to $51,500 in only 2 years!
I would have been thrilled to have a balance of $51,504 two years ago!
So why am I not happy now…
That is when I realized I was on the hedonic treadmill and needed to get off!
My life was becoming a vicious cycle of:
Wanting Something –> Waiting To Accomplish It To Be Happy –> Accomplish It –> Adapt –> Want Something Else.
This is what the hedonic treadmill looks like:
This sweaty guy was me!
How To Get Off The Hedonic Treadmill
Getting off the treadmill requires work, attention, focus, and mindfulness. Unfortunately, it's not a quick fix. That's why I say “getting off“ the hedonic treadmill instead of “get off“ the treadmill. It's always a work in progress.
However, I will share some ways I've found to work for me and can be effective for you.
“I Get To” Mentality
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to this concept by Shang from Save My Cents. She was a guest on my show, the Inspire To FIRE Podcast, and clarified why the “I Get To” mentality is so powerful.
A quick summary of the idea is to take moments in your day to reframe your mentality by replacing “I Have To” with “I Get To.”
This simple mindset reframe reminds you to acknowledge where you are fortunate and all your opportunities in life.
The best part is you can incorporate it into your day right away. You can start by doing it once a day in the morning.
Instead of saying, “I have to go to work to keep paying my student loans,” you can change your mindset to say, “I get to go to work to pursue financial independence for a better future for my family.”
That simple reframe can bring back happiness by forcing yourself to appreciate your opportunity that day.
Another resource I used to keep me motivated was the hashtag #IGetTo On Instagram. I started following it, which would help remind me to stick with it.
It's also lovely seeing others benefit from this mentality.
Reflecting On Progress Made
Another “getting off the hedonic treadmill” strategy is to reflect on progress. Reflection is such an essential part of someone's journey.
When I reflected on how I felt 2 years ago with over $100,000 in student loans, I was reminded of my tremendous progress so far.
You can do the same by reflecting on the progress made in your journey.
If your goal is Financial Independence, you can use my free FIRE Calculator to track your progress.
Download A Free FIRE Calculator!
By tracking your progress, you can celebrate when you hit milestones in the journey. I recently came across a quote that I think sums it up perfectly:
Happiness Is A Process Not A Destination
– Alfred D. Souza
These ideas have worked for me, but everyone is different. If you think you are on the hedonic treadmill, I would suggest starting with these ideas and exploring more after.
Hopefully, this helps you get off the hedonic treadmill and live happier!