Skip to main content

The View is Always the Same on a Hedonic Treadmill

The View is Always the Same on a Hedonic Treadmill

I laughed during the movie Groundhog Day at Bill Murray’s frustrations. Day in and day out, the same events occurred until he made the right choices for his life. How many of us are doing the same on our own hedonic treadmill. Brickman and Campbell coined the term in their essay "Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society" in 1971 and in the late 1990s, the concept was modified by Michael Eysenck, a British psychologist, to become the current "hedonic treadmill theory" which compares the pursuit of happiness to a person on a treadmill who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place.

My introduction to this phenomena was at age 16, while experiencing the thrill of financial victory as I bought a $400 VW Rabbit with my own money. I remember, 30 years later, that feeling of freedom and self-sufficiency when driving off the used car lot. However, I also remember the thrill wore off after pulling into my private high school’s parking lot realizing that four wheels and a motor was not the same as having a status symbol car. In the surprising study The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, professors from Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania we are shown that with the improvement in women’s issues since the 1970’s, women’s happiness has declined.

[Related: 5 Hidden Messages in Our Complaints]

The colloquialism, “Money doesn’t buy happiness” is well known but it doesn’t stop the subconscious drive each of us feel to follow another colloquialism, “Keeping up with the Jones.” Valorie Burton, in her book Successful Women Think Differently, highlights that part of the problem is confusing the event of crossing the finish line (owning a car) with the experience of getting there (the ability to successfully earn money at young age to afford a car). She states that our goal oriented society is at a loss to address the anticlimactic feeling that accompanies the attainment of a big goal.

Put in more direct terms, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World by Eric Weiner interprets this phenomena as: “Happiness equals reality minus expectations. Given that neat formulation, there are two ways to attack the problem: boost our reality or lower our expectations. Most choose the former. We’d rather stew in our misery than trim our expectations. Lowering our sights smacks us as un-American. Better a nation of morose overachievers, we reason, than a land of happy slackers.”

In my blog What Would I Tell My 22 Year Old Self, I shared a story from my Capitol Hill intern days. As a 19 year old, I displayed numerous external achievements and plenty of drive but no joy in the realization of goals. I only had a relentless anxiety of attaining one goal just to be placed on a mission to attain another or as this article suggests, I was on a hedonic treadmill. It was my mentor at the agribusiness lobby firm where I worked who planted a seed that would grow into a life’s process of self-evaluation. He told me, “Renee, live now. Your life is great. Don’t miss today’s achievements thinking of tomorrow’s goals.”

So I set a course to develop an internal stop button when I feel disappointed or anxious over something I haven’t yet achieved. At recognition of this feeling, I begin a list of personal accomplishments, small (learning to scuba dive) to large (publishing my first manuscript). This perspective adjustment sets the stage for me to enjoy pursuing more compelling goals without the accompanying anxiousness of time table. Reminding myself it is the entirety of experiences, good and bad, that enables me to be in a position to pursue more lofty endeavors does two important things. One: I recognize I have learned the skills needed to attain that new goal. Two: I have “a view from the mountain” of where I have been. I no longer feel the urge to achieve just to keep up with those around me or the media’s description of what I should be or have. I possess the capacity to re-set my internal compass at the moments of pressure so I can function at a high level but enjoy it as well.

[Related: Preparing for the Future of Work and the (Integrated) Pursuit of Happiness]

That is the key. Happiness now at the moment of endeavor. Getting off the hedonic treadmill can be done. Don’t believe there is something better around the bend or you’re one more purchase away from being happy. Accepting that the new car will suffer wear and tear over time, the new job will have its stressful days and every wedding comes with the subsequent marriage that requires effort, we can enjoy the moment without judgment or as Valorie Burton coaches, “Be Content while aiming higher.”

Attorney Renee Marie Smith is an 18 year Real Estate industry expert, author of “My Guru’s” book series on and an agent education series in Nevada & Florida. Her articles and blogs are nationally published in N Magazine, Palm Beach Woman, Women’s Council of Realtors PB quarterly, Huffington Post, Mortgage. Orb and Forbes. She speaks nationally at conventions and on radio. @mygurupublishes

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.


Continue learning with this Ellevate Playbook.:

Community Discussion
Julie Lucas
Julie Lucas

Do you ever feel sometimes that this hedonic treadmill occurs because of how we were conditioned as children? Every year there were new accomplishments, new classes to excel at, new awards whereas adulthood doesn't have these same milestones to give us our "achievement fix". I feel like Lisa Simpson needing her report card of A's for validation sometimes!

February 6, 2015