Disappointed with life, we set sights on major changes that will solve our perpetual sorrows. We look to the other side of the river, see the brilliant colored rolling hills, and over there, we believe, life will be better. For many, however, happiness is allusive. They eventually cross the river, settle in the brilliant, colored rolling hills on the opposite bank only to find that soil is too muddy and the new micro climate provides a thriving condition for mosquitos. We get stuck on a hedonic treadmill, running for happiness but never arriving.
The happiness of pleasurable felt experience, however, is not a continuous state. Many scientists suggest we have have a biological setpoint as our normal felt state of existence. No matter how wonderful the experience, eventually we return to our setpoint. We continuously return to a natural state of homeostatic balance after a happy or sad event.
Pleasurable feelings come and go. The hedonic treadmill theory suggests that often we get caught into chasing pleasurable states, believing that if the conditions were right, we would stay in the highs of hedonic happiness continuously. We keep chasing this imaginary state, but never get to the destination, as soon as we stop chasing, the hedonic feelings dissipate and we return to our natural homeostatic balance.
What is Hedonia?
Hedonia is the immediate feeling affects experienced from satisfying something we perceive as important. Kashdan and Biswas-Diener explain “hedonia is that sense of well-being you get on seeing the first finished copy of your new book, crossing the finish line after running a marathon, after a bout of great sex, on hearing you’re getting a good pay raise at work, and while enjoying a party where everybody feels comfortable enough to sing, dance, and be silly” (location 2794).
Hedonia is a present moment experience. “Hedonia is about having a pleasing life, period” (Bauer, et al. 2014, page 187). In psychological research hedonia wellbeing is often defined as a combination of pleasurable experiences and subjective satisfaction in life (page 187).
Hedonic Treadmill refers to our human tendency to promote positive affect, expecting that positive states will become a stable state. The hedonic treadmill describes our adaptations that returns us to a normal state, leaving us chasing happiness.
What Creates the Hedonia Treadmill?
The problem is we seek happiness in external conditions. We believe a new job, a new town, or a new family will solve all our inner turmoil, permanently change our natural set point, and we will experience constant state happiness. Big changes rarely, if ever, achieve this.
Yet, it is burned into our minds that a constant happy state is possible.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “we hold our right to pursue happiness as sacred, perhaps, even as an obligation. If we have any chance of arriving at a destination, we must have an idea of where that destination is, and which routes will take us there. If we want to be happy, we must know our definition of happiness, and how to achieve that ideal” (2021).
Pursuing a constant state of happiness is a recipe for disappointment. This, above all, creates the hedonic treadmill. The unrealistic expectation that there exists a paradise, a land of milk and honey, where life smoothly flows without disappointment or challenge. New jobs, new towns, and new families carry with them a whole new set of problems and sorrows that will only be discovered once we make the change. “The myth that we must continually experience glee exacts a costly toll on well-being. We charge ourselves with forcing happiness. There is confusion between experiencing pleasurable emotions and living a rich and meaningful life” (2014).
Purpose of Emotion
Emotions serve a purpose, signaling information about our connection to elements in the environment. Murphy explains that, “feelings provide knowledge. They don’t necessarily enlighten on the correct course of action to take. Feelings just provide input on whether or not we are pleased with our current state.”
Murphy explains further that “negative valence and weighty intensities send a powerful message that something is wrong. We may be doing something contributing to the sour emotions or it may be a biological misfiring” (2022).
Negative emotions are nothing more than a signal that provide a necessary function for survival. Yet, our expectation that we should never experience these bodily reactions to life is misguided. Instead of learning from these momentary pokes of discomfort, we believe there is something fundamentally wrong, and freefall into the depths of sorrow, painfully and powerfully ruminating, conjuring up the terribleness of the present moment.
Once we entertain the concept that happiness exists, and is achieved by only experiencing joys, we hop on that hedonic treadmill, and no matter how far we run, once we get off, we are condemned to the disappointment of returning to our natural setpoint of feelings.
Daniel Gilbert, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, wrote, “because emotional happiness is an experience, it can only be approximately defined by its antecedents and by its relation to other experiences” (2007).
Happiness is Fleeting
Basically, happiness is a passing experience that comes and goes. Gilbert explains that “when we are happy about, or happy that, we are merely noting that something is a potential source of pleasurable feeling, or a past source of pleasurable feeling, or that we realize it ought to be a source of pleasurable feeling but that it sure doesn’t feel that way at the moment” (2007, p. 41).
Even with a major change, such as moving to a new city, the emotional boost isn’t sustained. Once we arrive in this new desirable city, the initial boost of emotion, eventually settles, we become accustomed to our new surroundings, and we return to our personal baseline of feeling. We call this hedonic adaptation.
A group of researchers wrote, “the experience of pleasure is by nature fleeting and dependent upon circumstances.” They continue, “It is unsustainable and the sensations it evokes soon become neutral” (Dambrun, et al., 2012).
The feeling of happiness is a fleeting experience that we best learn to savor in the moments they pass. Learning to properly experience happiness among the constant ups and downs is a vital skill for enduring happiness. A friend once commented, “I’m afraid to enjoy the good moments because my life sucks and I know they will not last.”
Unfortunately, her belief that the passing nature of pleasurable feelings is the criteria defining a life that ‘sucks’ condemns her to avoiding pleasure altogether.
The Role of Displeasure
Once on the hedonic treadmill, chasing constant joys, we may find it hard to endure any displeasure. However, displeasure has a place in human growth. Obtaining highly desired objects, such as financial freedom, or healthy relationships, require momentary hardships.
Dambrun, et al., write that when we have a self centered focus difficult pursuits “give rise to afflictive affects such as frustration, anger, hostility or jealousy that damage wellbeing.” He argues that self-centeredness motivates happiness seeking through trying to maximize pleasure and avoiding displeasure.
The hedonic treadmill creates a fluctuating happiness with extremes of pleasure and displeasure. As soon as pleasure dissipates, we begin to drift backward, panic, and suffer.
However, many of the life enriching elements bring some displeasure. Sometimes we postpone the pleasure of new purchase, or miss an entertaining enjoyment in efforts to achieve a larger goal. An educational degree is often achieved after considerable sacrifice, enduring many displeasures. Some jobs are difficult but provide income and experience for better futures. We endure the moment, understanding that long term impact, and achieve a heightened state of being later.
All human relationships require some sacrifice of self. healthy relationships require some sacrifice. We must find middle ground where we make compromises. Compromise by its very nature includes giving up some personal desire, and this creates displeasure.
Experiencing Pleasure and Meaning
If we can step off the hedonic treadmill for a moment, catch our breath, and grasp the reality of emotion, we may be able to recalibrate our search for happiness, and cultivate a more sustainable happiness.
Murphy wrote that, “hedonia and eudaimonia are not opposites, placed on different ends of a continuum. Perhaps, and as I believe, wellness is comprised of healthy doses of both” (2021).
Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard professor, also holds this opinion. He defines happiness as, “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning.” He continues, “a happy person enjoys positive emotions while perceiving her life as purposeful. The definition does not pertain to a single moment but to generalized aggregates of one’s experiences: a person can endure emotional pain at times and still be happy” (2007, page 33).
Happiness is defined by many as the “subjective appreciation of one’s life as a whole” (Eckhaus & Sheaffer, 2018). Appreciating our life as a whole requires more than a string of pleasures from outside events. We can derive pleasure from hopes and dreams, along with an enjoyable shot of novelty. Yet, ultimate joy must take these and integrate them with meaningful pursuit of growth.
We can get off the treadmill, find pleasure in our pursuits, enough strength to endure displeasure, and flexibility to fully enjoy the pleasures as they come and go.
Bauer, J., Park, S., Montoya, R., & Wayment, H. (2014). Growth Motivation Toward Two Paths of Eudaimonic Self-Development. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16(1), 185-210.
Ben-Shahar, B. (2007). Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment. McGraw-Hill Education; 1st edition.
Dambrun, M., Ricard, M., Després, G., Drelon, E., Gibelin, E., Gibelin, M., Loubeyre, M., Py, D., Delpy, A., Garibbo, C., Bray, E., Lac, G., & Michaux, O. (2012). Measuring Happiness: From Fluctuating Happiness to Authentic–Durable Happiness. Frontiers in Psychology, 3.
Eckhaus, E., & Sheaffer, Z. (2018). Happiness Enrichment and Sustainable Happiness. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 14(4), 1079-1097.
Gilbert, Daniel (2007). Stumbling on Happiness. Vintage.
Kashdan. T. B., Biswas-Diener, R. (2015). The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your “Good” Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment.
McKenzie, J. (2018). Is there such a thing as happiness in the present? Happiness and temporality. Journal of Classical Sociology, 18(2), 154-168.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Happy With Where We Are. Psychology Fanatic. Published 2-20-2022. Accessed 11-12-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Eudaimonia. Aristotle’s Views on Happiness. Psychology Fanatic. Published 5-11-2021. Accessed 11-12-2022.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2014). Happy All the Time: Experiencing a Whole Spectrum of Emotion. Flourishing Life Society. Published 8-2014. Accessed 11-12-2022.