April 25, 2022

The Hedonic Treadmill

“Money does not equal happiness”

This is an old adage that we have probably heard many times in our lives. And even though this has been preached to us over and over again, we allow money to be the primary driver in our lives. If only I could get that job promotion, the starring role in a new film, or win the lottery, my life would be fulfilled and I would be happy, right?

Michael Eyseneck, a British psychologist, in the late 1990s coined a concept called the hedonic treadmill which theorizes that when we do achieve monetary success we tend to return back to the same baseline level of happiness or discontent that we were at before. The reasoning behind this is two fold. For one, the success that we were initially chasing and did finally achieve is no longer giving us the same pleasure that it did at the onset, leaving us craving and wanting something new. It’s like a drug, once the high wears off you are back to where you were before only wanting another hit. The second reason is that when we do elevate our status in life, we also elevate our expectations and desires. This elevation requires a new level of energy, work and monetary requirements to maintain, which just leads to new levels of stress and takes away from the happiness we were initially chasing. This is why it is referred to as a treadmill; its a cycle that runs over and over again and never leads to any lasting change. It’s like the late rapper Biggie Smalls said – Mo’ money, Mo’ problems.

A buddy of mine was steadily on his way to become a corporate executive. His daily grind included him waking up at 5:30 in the morning, checking his email as he brushed his teeth, working in the office until the sun went down, and finishing up his day in bed with his laptop in hand. A 12 hour day was a slow day and when it came to relaxing during the weekends – the concept was nonexistent. The idea was though if he could work up to the position he wanted at his job, he would achieve boss status. His pay check would increase dramatically, he could buy the new Porsche he wanted, and his new found status would allow him to live happily ever after. Finally after years of hard work, my friend got the promotion he wanted. And while his monetary status did increase substantially and the new Porsche was firmly parked on his drive way, the excitement and happiness from his achievement quickly fizzled away and he was right back to where he was before. The new job came with new responsibilities and the work hours were just as long. He still wasn’t spending time with his wife or kids and he was working just as hard to stay in the same place just now he has a new car in the driveway that he doesn’t even drive. There was no permanent gain in happiness. And until he can set a new definition of success the treadmill will continue to run for him over and over again.

So how do we assemble our lives in a way to keep us off the hedonic treadmill yet happy and fulfilled? Here are my pointers:

1) Quality of life above everything else – Instead of focusing on materialistic luxurious goods, focus on autonomy of life. Freedom to spend your hours doing things you want to do, spending time with the ones you love, traveling and building experiences. Time is the most precious commodity we have and at your grave you will be remembered for the memories you have created with those around you, not what type of watch you used to wear.

2) Don’t chase your tail – We work hard and spend money to give an appearance of status, build up debt in the process, and then work even harder to have to pay the bills. End this cycle by focusing on building wealth by saving and consciously spending only on necessities. Remember that the high achieved from materialistic goods fades fast, and you’ll only be stuck craving something new.

3) Follow your passions – The old saying is that if you do something you truly love for a living, you will never work a day in your life. While I don’t necessarily agree with that statement entirely, the premise is that you need to focus on doing things that you are passionate about even if it means taking a pay cut. The key is not to be chasing success but rather to be avoiding chronic stress and sources of constant annoyances. A stress-free life is a happy life and the upside to that is absolutely unlimited.

4) Stay true to your day one’s – Invest in friendships and spend time with the people you enjoy. Even if you elevate your job status, do not “elevate” your friend circle. Focus on those that have been there since day one and supported you through your endeavors thick and thin. Make efforts to spend time socializing, traveling, going to dinner, drinks etc.. with these people and build memories of happiness and laughter.

5) Small but consistent – A study found that while major events such as a job promotion or the purchase of a new house does not provide lasting increases in well-being, consistently performing small activities that give a sense of accomplishment can provide a cumulative boost in happiness. Meaning if you are to do something small such as an exercise routine on a consistent basis, it will provide you will a daily boost due to the sense of accomplishment you will feel afterwards from a job well done. You can also set small goals for yourself throughout the week or the month to work on that will not only help you feel successful once completed, but will also help you on your trajectory to a much larger goal you have in mind.

So to step off the hedonic treadmill focus on things in your life that are real: experiences, friends, family, relationships, passions, and quality of life. Otherwise you will forever be stuck in the never ending pursuit of happiness where the grass never ends up being greener.

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