How To Stop Chasing Happiness, And Just Be Happy

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Get Yourself Off The Hedonic Treadmill

“Most people are like all stomachs: they cannot remain satisfied for a long time.”
― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

When I was getting my undergrad in English, I was not always the most studious member of my university. I wrote recently on the ways I’ve had to trick the laziness out of myself, and honestly, it has always been a struggle. One year, I was on the brink of losing my scholarship if I didn’t make an A in a summer class, so what did I do? I took the easiest sounding class I could, of course. That happened to be a psychology class on happiness. How hard could a class about being happy really be?

The main textbook for the class was this one:

Which mentioned this thing called the hedonic treadmill. I’ll explain more about that soon. It’s a really interesting book overall that I highly recommend.

It turns out, I didn’t lose my scholarship, so I guess the class wasn’t that hard, but attaining actual happiness seems to be quite difficult for most of us. That’s because we are trained to base our happiness on goals and success, and we’ve got it all wrong.


What Is The Hedonic Treadmill?

Let’s define this sinister-sounding workout routine.

The hedonic treadmill (also known as hedonic adaptation) is a theory positing that people repeatedly return to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them. — Seph Fontane Pennock, BBA

In some ways, this treadmill can be a sign of hope; if something bad happens, you generally, with enough time, return to your general level of happiness that you had before.

It can also put us on a hamster wheel of achievement, where we forever put off our happiness for someplace just over the horizon line. Let me emphasize this with a fictional story with a guy we will call John.

John is doing okay. He isn’t depressed or anything, but he has his struggles. He believes if he can just get his raise at work, he will be happy. He can pay off some debts he shouldn’t have accrued, and take his wife on a vacation.

John gets his raise, and he is ecstatic. He pays off his debts and takes his wife on a weekend getaway to a cabin in the mountains. After a couple of months, John finds himself daydreaming at work of a new job at a new company; his current job is fine, but it is holding him back. This new job will make him happy for sure.

John gets a new job across town and another small raise. He is so excited. He spends the first couple of weeks feeling valued in ways that he never did at his last job. After a couple of months, John finds himself daydreaming at work, this time he wants to put a hot tub in the back yard. If he could just relax in his hot tub after a long day at work, he would be so much happier.

John gets the hot tub. The first couple of months he spends every evening relaxing with a beer and even sets up an outdoor television to watch. After a couple of months…

Okay, you get it right? John is basing his happiness on an external goal: a raise, a new job, a hot tub, etc. It is good to have goals, but if we know that our external experiences have little to do with our overall happiness, why do we continue to think that new external experiences and objects are going bring us happiness?

“Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

― Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

How Do I Get Off The Hedonic Treadmill?

You must throw away the idea that you can earn your way to happiness. Most of us know that you can’t buy happiness, but we still try to earn it through some external goal.

I know I said earlier that people return to their baseline of happiness regardless of what happens to them, but that only accounts for external factors. You can change your happiness level, but it has to be an internal change.

The researchers found that even though there was significant stability in the happiness assessments, 24% of participants still experienced a significant change to their happiness level, and 9% of participants changed by two standard deviations or more. It seems that long-lasting change is possible.

“The very good news is there is quite a number of internal circumstances . . . under your voluntary control. If you decide to change them (none of these changes come without real effort), your level of happiness is likely to increase lastingly.” — Martin Seligman

That begins with finding happiness where you are. If you are not happy at $30,000 a year, you aren’t going to be happy at $100,000 a year, if the only thing that changes is your income.

One of the biggest factors of finding happiness where you are comes down to practicing gratitude.

“A study by Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues Cohn, Coffey, Pek, and Finkel showed that the stream of positive emotions induced through loving-kindness meditation can outpace the effects of the hedonic treadmill (2008).”

Instead of thinking that the bench you are sitting on is dreary, or uncomfortable, just take it in for what it is. If you can begin to practice this with small scenarios, you can begin to work on your self-talk when it comes to your life too. Instead of a work assignment being stressful, or a family member being dramatic; they just are what they are.

This takes some serious rewiring of the brain and a lot of time. It’s okay though, you don’t have to be rewired to make progress. So where do you begin? Try to write down 5 things you are grateful for every day. It can be simple. Here are my 5 for today:

  1. I am grateful that my fiancé made kale and sausage soup
  2. I am grateful that I ran a new personal record pace on my run today.
  3. I am grateful my dog is snuggled at my feet while I am writing this.
  4. I am grateful I no longer have the cold I was struggling with last week.
  5. I am grateful I spent time with a friend earlier today.

What about you? What are you grateful for today? How can you use that gratefulness to step off of the hedonic treadmill? It’s funny, but I guess I should be grateful for a couple of things that at the time I thought were quite negative. I am grateful I was so lazy that my GPA dropped into critical territory. I am grateful that I thought a class on happiness would be easy.

And I am grateful that you are reading this right now, and hope that we can learn more together in the future.

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