Understanding the Hedonic Treadmill and how to achieve sustainable happiness

Want to be happier?

Arthur Schopenhauer had once remarked:

“How insatiable a creature is man! Every satisfaction he attains lays the seeds of some new desire, so that there is no end to the wishes of each individual will.”

It seems as if our friend Schopenhauer was on to something which is that we always seem to be several steps away from having what we think we want, yet when we get it, desire itself still remains and the fixed state of happiness we assumed obtainable still seems out of reach.


Why must happiness be so fleeting?

Why does desire, or a sense of lack, have to be the thing that  always seems so present? Why can’t happiness be the thing that’ll just stay put, like a good dog?

A term was coined for this unpleasant cycle and it’s known as The Hedonic Treadmill. It states that “whatever level of wealth or material goods you have, you adapt to it and you’ll always want more.” It is said to be “one of the main enemies of happiness” and understandably so. We work, we tire, we acquire in hopes of attaining a certain level of achievement. Then when the goal has been met and we carry on with our lives, we acclimiate to that state of being and it becomes our new familiar. We grow used to it and tire of that too, left feeling that it’s not enough, that it simply will not do.

So what is happiness, or at least the type of happiness we wish to obtain?

Those who claim to know true happiness describe it as a calm and stable inner state rather than a series of scattered euphoric moments. It is explained as a sense of deep inner peace, a feeling of being comfortable in your own skin and with your own life, regardless of the circumstances present in it.

We’re told in our society that the way to be a competent person, the way to be a good person is to make a lot of money. In the last 50 years economic growth has gone up a lot. In America for example, we’re about twice as wealthy as we were 50 years ago. The nationally representative surveys of people’s happiness show that happiness has remained stagnant. People aren’t any happier than they were 50 years ago. Tim Kasser, PhD

It’s no surprise that for most, happiness is enigmatic. It is easier to look at the artificial and material idealized depiction of happiness and say “that’s what I want” rather than accept that happiness can be an abstract concept, despite seeming simple, and an even more so perplexing endeavor.

In the field of psychology, the source of our motivation falls into one of two categories: Intrinsic goals and extrinsic goals. The struggle of choosing between these two distinctions easily explains why we can so often be at war with ourselves. Intrinsic goals are satisfying in and of themselves, since they meet deep seated psychological needs, such as: a sense of purpose, personal growth, close connected relationships, community feeling and contribution beyond yourself. The word extrinsic is defined as “not part of the essential nature of someone or something; coming or operating from outside” which explains why some forms of extrinsic goals are: the pursuit of wealth, image and status.

Once you have basic needs met, more money doesn’t seem to buy more happiness. The difference between a person who earns $ 5,000 and $ 50,000 is dramatic. The difference between a person who earns $50,000 and $50,000,000 isn’t. Daniel Gilbert, PhD

We live in a world where fulfilling intrinsic goals won’t get you fame, it won’t get you the attention of women or men and it won’t guarantee money but psychologists have shown that intrinsic goals are in fact the key to long lasting happiness. If you’re living in a way that allows you to cultivate your highest values then you’re going to increase your baseline of happiness. When you find what makes you feel internally content, happiness won’t seem so daunting. Buddha seemed to have learned through observation that external solutions cannot and will not bring internal resolve. While Buddhist’s seek to rid themselves of all desire, that may not be realistic for most. Perhaps we ought to start with awareness pertaining to our own beliefs and motivations. Don’t you feel it’s worth pursuing goals driven by intrinsic motivation if life will feel more rich because of it? Maybe it is we who are in the way of our own happiness.

Quotes referenced from the documentary: Happy

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