This is a republishing of Shoulders of Giants. Twice a month readers use the timeless insights on passion, productivity, philosophy, and happiness from this newsletter to build towards the life they want.
👨🏫 Topic: What the hedonic treadmill means about our happiness
🔍 Quote: Seneca on no one understanding the value of time
📜 Passage: Thich Nhat Hanh on the two versions of ourselves
Think back to a time you wanted something painfully bad—an extreme desire that occupied your mind. It could be a job, a new car, a relationship, etc. Do you remember fantasizing about how happy it would make you?
Now, if you did finally get one of those things, you probably experienced that the happiness boost wasn’t as intense and long-lived as you thought. That new thing became a regular part of life without noticing it. And within a few months, your elation disappeared, and life didn’t feel any different than before.
I’m sure we’ve all gone through this in one way or another. This cycle is called the hedonic treadmill.
It’s a theory stating that people regularly return to their baseline of happiness, regardless of what happens to them.
A spike of emotion is inevitably followed by a return to how we usually feel day-to-day.
For most people, that’s a “meh” feeling. A “not bad, I can’t complain”. You walk around feeling okay.
At first thought, it may seem depressing. “So you’re telling me I’ll never have lasting happiness?” But this is the wrong takeaway for two reasons.
The first reason is that the hedonic treadmill applies to difficult times too. So it’s equally as comforting as it is disturbing.
Whether we go through a breakup or the loss of a loved one, rage calms, sadness dissipates, and grief recedes over time. Although events may permanently alter life, our day-to-day emotions return to our baseline.
I find that fact extremely comforting. It’s something I hug on to during hard times. I know that no matter what I’m going through or what I feel, I’ll eventually return to the warmth of “meh.”
A surprising study from the 1970s even reinforces this point. It showed that lottery prize winners and paralyzed accident victims initially experienced extreme happiness and sadness. But in the long-term, people from both groups returned to the levels of happiness they had before those events.
Besides this being a comforting fact, it’s also extremely logical. Psychologists believe the hedonic treadmill was a survival tool that helped humans leave the past behind us to focus on the present. It would be hard for our ancestors to hunt for food if they could never overcome the sadness of losing a friend.
The same way our bodies physically adapt to the sun by tanning (melanin), our brains emotionally adapt to life circumstances with the hedonic treadmill.
The second reason the hedonic treadmill doesn’t mean you won’t have lasting happiness is that it applies strongest to superficial things.
Things based around pleasure (partying, eating junk food, etc.), novelty (getting a new job, living in a new city, etc.), and social value (buying a nicer car than your neighbour, getting the latest iPhone before your friends, etc.) are the most fleeting and the least durable forms of happiness. These are the typical peaks we feel.
In contrast, things that are meaningful to us bring long-lasting happiness and raise our baseline. The main ones are our social life and fulfilling experiences. Those don’t just bring a temporary spike in happiness. Improving these leaves a lasting effect that makes regular day-to-day life more pleasant.
For example, a healthy social life not only means having friends to have fun with but a support group for when you’re feeling down and a source of encouragement to push you farther in life. This is deeper than unboxing a new phone. This elevates the quality of your life and raises your baseline of happiness.
Similarly, let’s say your small business reaches $1 million in sales this year. Yes, you’ll get a spike in happiness from that accomplishment. But when that wears out, your satisfaction with life will remain elevated. By reaching a goal that came from deep within, your baseline of happiness gets raised.
A healthy social life and fulfilling experiences are specifically meaningful because after food, water and shelter, that’s what humans are naturally driven towards. We ultimately want love, belongingness, accomplishments, and fulfillment in life.
Superficial experiences give us happiness spikes; meaningful matters raise the floor. That’s what we need to focus on. Raising our baseline level of happiness so that we’ll always return to a pleasant place no matter what happens.
The hedonic treadmill gives us faith that hard times will pass and shows us that lasting happiness comes from meaningful pursuits. Clutch it when you’re feeling down and focus on raising your baseline over chasing spikes.
What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily? For we are mistaken when we look forward to death; the major portion of death has already passed. Whatever years lie behind us are in death’s hands. - Seneca
Most of us don’t truly understand the value of our lives. Many people lose their lives because they don’t understand the value of even an hour. Those hours quickly accumulate to a lost life.
Death isn’t some faraway place. We don’t have time to waste. We die a little every second.
Someone on their deathbed would do anything to get the time we throw away.
Seneca also once said life is not short; we’ve been given all the time we need to accomplish the greatest of things. The problem is that we waste it.
It’s funny how much our surroundings influence our emotions. Our joys and sorrows, likes and dislikes are colored by our environment so much that often we just let our surroundings dictate our course. We go along with “public” feelings until we no longer even know our own true aspirations. We become a stranger to ourselves, molded entirely by society… Sometimes I feel caught between two opposing selves — the “false self” imposed by society and what I would call my “true self.” How often we confuse the two and assume society’s mold to be our true self. Battles between our two selves rarely result in a peaceful reconciliation. Our mind becomes a battlefield on which the Five Aggregates — the form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness of our being — are strewn about like debris in a hurricane. Trees topple, branches snap, houses crash. - Thich Nhat Hanh