What is the Hedonic Treadmill (and How to Get Off It)

The hedonic treadmill, despite its homage to exercise equipment, has nothing to do with running — unless you consider an endless pursuit of “more” to be exercise. The term hedonic treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation) refers to the tendency for humans to return to a baseline level of happiness after adapting to a positive or negative change in life circumstances.

Despite our constant quest for greater and greater happiness, each of us has a happiness set point. Your overall happiness levels will always eventually return to your baseline once you’ve gotten used to new stimuli. This baseline, or set point, is specific to each person based on his or her genetics, disposition, and past experiences. In fact, humans are really only able to control about 40% of our happiness.

In other words, no matter how many promotions you get, how many new relationships you start, how many new doodads you accumulate — you’re still probably always going to be about as happy as you’ve been in the past. This fact, however, doesn’t stop us from continuing to run on the treadmill, pursuing the next great thing that will “finally make us happy.”

How Do You Get Off the Hedonic Treadmill?
So what does this mean for you? How do you live a fulfilling life if no matter what you do, you’ll always be about as happy as you are in this moment? Being a minimalist, or having a lifestyle which focuses on simplicity and intentionality, provides us with some insights.

The following is a list of minimalist approaches that may help you step off that treadmill and actually all the moments of your life, whether things are new and exciting or not.

1. Focus on your relationships
Relationships are one of life’s greatest joys. And that’s not just a platitude! Research on “Very Happy People” demonstrates that the happiest individuals are those who are highly social, with strong romantic and social relationships. Further, the better relationships you have, the happier you’ll be. Introverts, or extroverts who only have a few close relationships, need not worry. Those who focus on group harmony and the well-being of others are more likely to take their relationships to the “next level” of friendship. The number of people you do this with doesn’t matter.

To be a good friend, we can’t only think about our own needs, desires, and interests. Instead, we must make space in our own lives to consider the interests and needs of others. Creating this space helps us step off the hedonic treadmill. Rather than focusing on our next happiness high, we focus on the work that goes into maintaining positive relationships.

We must be aware, of course, that the hedonic treadmill also influences our perception of relationships. Most relationships initially go through a honeymoon phase filled with warm, fuzzy feelings. At some point or another, this honeymoon ends and we may start wondering if there’s someone better out there — someone else to bring back that initial surge of happiness we felt before we got used to our new friend or partner and stopped noticing all of their great, and not-so-great, quirks.

Pursue away if you so choose, but just know that this is hedonic adaptation in action, and, given time, you’ll soon be just as frustrated when your new partner doesn’t do the dishes as you were when your old partner snored!

2. Declutter
Think back to a recent purchase and how you felt after buying it — happy, right? Thrilled to bring it home. Now think back a bit further. What about something you bought a year ago? Two? Do you still have that same level of excitement? Probably not. Our brains are hardwired to like new things.

If you’re anything like me, you may even feel a tiny twinge of regret or even disappointment that many of the items you purchased don’t make you feel like they used to. You might think about the money you spent on it, your environmental impact, or even all the wasted time you spent researching the purchase before finally swiping your credit card.

When we’re constantly trying to achieve a happiness high through novelty, we engage in a never-ending pursuit of accumulating new and “better” things. Eventually, the newness wears off, however, and we’re left with a pile of stuff we may not actually want or need. We keep thinking that once we have that next item, we’ll finally be content with our belongings. But that never happens. So we keep buying.

When we start decluttering our unwanted things, we quickly get a grasp on exactly how the hedonic treadmill has impacted our lives. All those things we bought are essentially wasted, and we’re about as happy as we were before we bought them. Getting down to the bare essentials — the stuff that still brings happiness or utility after all this time — provides us with an understanding as to what we really need to thrive in the world. And we learn it’s a hell of lot less than we initially thought.

Imagine your home filled with only those items you truly care about and need. Imagine the free time (and space!), saved money, and gratitude you’ll feel when you aren’t on an endless quest for more stuff.

3. Try a no-buy month (or year!)
I recently read The Year of Less by Cait Flanders, which introduces readers to the idea of a “no-buy” year. Over the course of the year, Flanders eliminated all non-essential purchases, decluttered almost 70% of her belongings and, drastically increased her savings. In short, she stopped chasing happiness through buying stuff.

By engaging in a no-buy period, you can begin counteracting impulse buys, which make up 40% to 80% of all purchases. These impulse buys, while giving us a short-term burst of pleasure, often ultimately end up as clutter. By getting into the habit of thinking through our purchases — initially by stopping all discretionary spending — we obtain a better handle on how we may simply be using shopping as a distraction from our emotions.

An added benefit to a no-buy month (or longer) is that it provides you with an opportunity to pursue new activities that you may not have otherwise undertaken. When we can no longer turn to shopping or “retail therapy” as an activity, we find alternative ways to spend our time. You might find yourself spending more time hiking, reading, visiting free museums, trying new recipes, or chatting with friends.

The best part of all this? According to a University of Arizona study, millennials who buy less and save more report greater overall well-being than their shopping-prone peers.

At the beginning of this year, I started my own “no-buy” period of three months. I’ve just finished my second month and can attest to how good it feels to watch my savings grow, increase the time I have to read and write (since I’m not researching what to buy next), and appreciate the fact I already have everything I need.

4. Put any raises into savings or towards debt repayment
Capitalism is basically the hedonic treadmill for economics. Our economy functions on the idea of endless growth as an end-in-and-of-itself. But how much do you need to survive and maintain your current levels of happiness? Studies show that an income of around $65,000 for an individual is sufficient to reach and maintain emotional well-being. Interestingly, the more a person makes after that point, the more they want.

Rather than endlessly pursuing more money for the sake of having more money, take the time to really consider your basic needs and how much money you need to fund them. Once you have your number, which may be more or less than $65,000 a year, start funneling the rest into debt repayment or savings. By using money as a tool, rather than a goal, we can focus on those things that will actually lead to long-term life satisfaction, like spending time with loved ones and pursuing hobbies.

So the next time you get a promotion or take a higher-paying job, consider keeping your quality of life the same and instead syphoning that money into debt repayments and savings. In doing so, you begin creating a path for yourself defined by freedom and choice. Putting money towards debt or savings will also help you avoid lifestyle creep, the enemy of getting off the hedonic treadmill.

5. Delay Gratification
Delaying gratification allows us to separate short-term pleasure from long-term fulfillment. Pleasure, after all, is not happiness, nor does it cause happiness.

Aristotle believed that one of the ways to achieve our full potential as human beings was to focus on developing habits that allow us to be virtuous or morally-upstanding. In his view, simply chasing pleasure impeded that work. In fact, he went so far as to say that the one thing separating humans from other animals was our ability to use reason instead of purely chasing pleasure.

So how does one delay gratification and stop prioritizing pleasure? Next time you want to buy something, consider placing it in your electronic shopping cart and then walking away from your computer. Alternatively, if you’re able to favorite items, do that. Every week or so, take a look back and see whether you still need or want that item. If a month goes by and you’re still actively thinking about the purchase, it is probably safe to go ahead and buy it.

By waiting a few days or months, we can better ensure that the item we purchase will either bring us long-term utility or a net positive, not just a quick sugar rush of pleasure (and then eventual clutter). The longer I give myself to think, the less “new” the item becomes because I have been considering it for so long. By the time I actually go to buy the product, it’s almost as though I’ve already had it all that time.

6. Practice Gratitude
Practicing gratitude for the stuff that’s already in our lives can help us step off the hedonic treadmill. Studies show that people who actively consider the things they’re grateful for are happier and less depressed. When we express gratitude, we are shifting our attention to that which provides us with feelings of safety and well-being. This counteracts our brain’s natural tendency to do the opposite. We are evolutionarily primed to look to our environment for threats, which can cause needless anxieties and worries.

Practicing gratitude can also make our relationships stronger, which as previously discussed, can help get you off that treadmill. Research shows that when we express gratitude to someone, we show we are responsive to that person’s needs. In addition, verbally expressing gratitude creates a positive feedback loop where each person is able to recognize the other as a source of support and positive intent.

Gratitude focuses our attention on what’s going well, not what’s going poorly. It’s only natural then that this would help us feel more fulfilled with our lives as they currently stand, rather than focusing on being “more” happy. When we’re grateful about what we have already, it becomes easier to avoid buying new things or ditching our old relationships to pursue “better” ones just so we can get that temporary rush of happiness.

Some simple ways you can begin practicing gratitude everyday are by keeping a bullet journal, telling someone in your life how much you appreciate them, or engaging in gratitude meditation.

Each of these minimalist actions are interconnected. When we delay gratification, we can better undertake a no-buy month or year. After we’ve decluttered, we have more time and energy to focus on our relationships. When we commit to a no-buy period, we save more money. When we practice gratitude, we create a reinforcing loop where every single one of those things gets easier.

We don’t have to constantly seek out the next new, great thing. Once we recognize that those bursts of pleasure don’t equate to lasting meaning, we can begin focusing on those things that spending time with loved ones, trying new hobbies and mastering old ones, focusing on self-improvement, and being truly present in the here and now.

Minimalism, simple living, philosophy, and personal finance. Freelance writing services available at lindseybwrites.com.