Hedonic Treadmill

PONDER THE MAJOR purchases you’ve made over the past five years. You might have bought a new house or car, purchased furniture for the living room or remodeled the kitchen. In all likelihood, you eagerly anticipated these expenditures. You imagined how great it would be to take delivery of the new car or to have a spanking new kitchen. You thought about how these purchases would make your life so much better.

And sure enough, you were happy at first. But within a few weeks or months, you likely found yourself barely noticing the new car and the new kitchen. Instead, you were increasingly preoccupied with and excited about something else—your next big expenditure and how that purchase would somehow transform your life.

What’s going on here? At issue is a psychological phenomenon known as the hedonic treadmill. We spend our lives lusting after the next promotion, the next pay raise or the next major purchase, only to find we quickly become dissatisfied and start hankering after something else. It seems we aren’t very good at figuring out what will make us happy, in part because we don’t appreciate how quickly we’ll take each new improvement for granted.

This is another trait we can blame on our hunter-gatherer ancestors: They survived in a hostile world because they were never satisfied with what they had and strove constantly to get ahead—and we still carry those instincts within us.

Our tendency to adapt to material improvements in our life may thwart the pursuit of greater happiness. But adaptation can also save us from everlasting misery. Just as we grow accustomed to good things in our life, we also adapt to terrible developments. Getting laid off, suffering a disability or a family member’s death can all seem like events from which we will never recover. And yet we do.

Next: Signaling

Previous: Future Self

Articles: No SatisfactionMoving the Goalposts, Choosing Happiness, Unhappy ResultsProsperity’s Pitfalls and Running in Place

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