‘Once I get this new job, earn more money, find a partner, lose a stone, move house…I’ll be so much happier.’ And you are, for a while at least. But somehow the extra happiness doesn’t last, and we start looking for the next thing that will bring us happiness. That’s what is known as the hedonic treadmill.
It’s not that external circumstances have no impact on our happiness, it’s more that we have a tendency to revert to our natural level of happiness over time, despite what is happening around us.
It’s a bit like the way that the first bite of something delicious tastes a lot better than the seventh or eighth bite.
A natural level of happiness
And, of course, people’s natural level of happiness varies, and is at least partly genetic. According to Sonja Lubomirsky, 50% of our happiness set-point is something we’re born with.
So, does that mean we should stop trying to be happier? After all, we know that the hedonic treadmill will always bring us back to our set point?
Certainly, it means that putting all our energies into achieving and getting things may not bring the rewards that we imagine.
However, Lubomirsky’s research also found that 40% of our happiness set point is under our own control (with just 10% being due to external circumstances).
Whether we can put precise figures on it or not, a great deal of our happiness is actually something that we can influence through the daily choices we make.
A new job in itself may only provide a fleeting happiness, but a job where we are fully engaged and in flow, and which aligns with our values is a very different thing and far more immune to the effect of the hedonic treadmill.
Martin Seligman refers to activities where we have this kind of engagement, and in which we find meaning, as ‘gratifications’. He suggests that such gratifications are the fundamental building blocks of happiness. Work is clearly important, but we can also find this kind of happiness in a great conversation, dancing, reading a great book, helping others, immersing ourselves in nature.
This doesn’t mean that achieving things can’t bring us lasting happiness, simply that it’s less about the end goal, and more about the process, or the ongoing impact of the change. If you get a pay rise, happiness won’t come from having more money per se, but it could produce a net gain if that money can free you up to spend more time on ‘gratifications’, or reduce the amount of time you spend worrying about paying the bills.
What choices can you make today, and in the coming weeks, which will add to your happiness?