In geek circles, the hedonic treadmill is a powerful idea with strong roots. The essence of it is that as humans, we are physiologically designed to never be satisfied without more of whatever it is we crave.
In practice, it means that if, for example, you want to “be rich”, and you define that as having a million dollars of yearly disposable income, then by the time you reach that objective, your internal goal posts will have shifted and now you will want two million dollars, or more. The goals perpetually recede in the distance like mirages the closer you get to them.
If your goal is to have three kids, then some time after your third child is born you will start to feel dissatisfied and want something else. If your goal is to run a four minute mile, then once you achieve that objective, you won’t be satisfied until you run a 3 minute 50 mile, and so on forever and ever.
The hedonic treadmill explains why we are so miserable as a species despite living in the most plentiful and wealthy period of human history so far. As comedian Louis CK put it, “everything’s amazing but no one is happy”.
Many discussions of the hedonic treadmill paint it as an unavoidable physiological characteristic of mankind, as ineluctable as death and maybe even taxes. We are human, therefore we always crave more, therefore we can never be satisfied with what we have, we must always have more. The natural conclusion of this line of thinking is to realise that humans can never be happy unless constantly expanding their sphere of influence, and therefore resign ourselves to either a dystopia where most people are dehumanised to strip away this fundamental human need, or a view of humanity as some kind of uncontrolled cancerous growth that will eventually falter and die, perhaps taking its host organism (the Earth) down along with it.
Like most pernicious ideas, the problem with the hedonic treadmill is not that it’s untrue, it’s that it’s only part of the truth.
Everything is amazing
The more complete truth is to recognise that yes, a part of us is wired to seek out objectives and beat them, and in fact that’s a pretty helpful mechanism to use to achieve things (goal-setting techniques abound in personal improvement literature, and for good reason!), but it’s not a helpful mechanism when considering our larger goals in life, and it is by far not the only mechanism available to us.
The brain is a complex organ, and it has many more ways to produce happiness and contentment than just goal-seeking.
For example, one such mechanism that is easily available to all of us and very popular with meditation practitioners is “being present in the moment”. You can try it for yourself right now! After you finish reading this paragraph, take your eyes off the screen, and take three very slow deep breaths, letting the complete reality around you (sights, sounds, smells, etc) sink in, letting your eyes unfocus, letting your senses be overwhelmed by the cacophony of sensory input that surrounds you at any moment. Then, while you’re doing this, try to notice something beautiful amongst this cacophony. It’ll only take thirty seconds. Do it now.
Unless you’re in a truly awful place in your life (which is very unlikely to be the case for anyone reading this article) you will have noticed something beautiful or weird or unique around yourself and taken it in. And as a result, you should feel incrementally happier than you were before you did it. Notice this did not require any goals or achievements, only taking the time to pay attention to the world that surrounds you with beauty at any given moments and noticing something nice. You noticed the water you were blissfully swimming in, chose what to think about instead of being a puppet of your mind, and this had an effect on your sense of contentment.
Boom. Happiness treadmill beaten. Achievement unlocked. What’s the next goal now?
There is no goal, just a practice for the rest of our lives. When we practice this simple, 30-second exercise on a regular basis, we soon find that it gives us more lasting contentment and happiness than any goal can, and does so consistently throughout our life for free, without needing to purchase anything or beat any high score or any other defined goal.
As we internalise that realisation, the hedonic treadmill will lose its effect. The key was in Louis CK’s sketch all along: we merely needed to notice that yes, many things are amazing, and be happy.
A final note
In reading this article, it is easy to misinterpret it and believe that I’m advocating throwing out goals altogether. That is not the case. Goal-setting is extremely useful to get stuff done, to achieve things, to have an impact on the world – and a whole lot of other things you may wish to do (and feeling that we’re living up to our potential to make a positive difference is something that can also create contentment and happiness).
However, the goals are insubstantial, and the problem of the hedonic treadmill arise when you mistake the goal for the activity. If you start going down a ski slope, it is natural to have a goal to get to the bottom. However, if you don’t derive happiness from going down the slope, but only from getting to the end, then you’re missing the point of skiing – and of life.