The Hedonic Treadmill


Last weekend I was sitting in a classroom in Columbia, MO for my MBA program listening to a lecture on microeconomics. We had a guest lecturer for this portion of the class and he brought up a theory I had never heard before, the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill speaks of how people, in general, have a set point of happiness, and although stimuli occur resulting in peaks and troughs in a person’s happiness, normally they return to their previously set point of happiness. For example, say you are receiving salary A for your job and your boss walks in informing you about a 50% raise, resulting in salary B. You would be thrilled right? According to this theory, eventually, this pay increase becomes normalized and your level of happiness returns to its previous set point. The example the guest lecturer brought up was a study done in 1987 on lottery winners compared to non-lottery winners. The study found in the long run there was no difference between the happiness felt by either group of individuals. Crazy, right? I put a note in my reminders when I heard about this to do more research and decided to use the topic for my reflection post this week.

When I first heard this theory, my initial response was, “no way, if I won 200 million dollars I’m pretty sure I’d buy a whole bunch of cows, stop worrying about money, and be happy.” After further deliberation, I see their point. Stacking this idea up against my own life for comparison revealed some truth. I always think the happiness felt from buying a new car, a new house, a job promotion, creating a business, graduating a prestigious school, etc., will be a long-term effect. It never is though. For the material items like houses and cars, the happiness wears off relatively quickly and I am left with a car payment and mortgage every month. For the accomplishments and accolades, it might further my career, knowledge, or capabilities, but does it bring me prolonged happiness? For me, the answer is no.

I will always be a motivated individual to achieve, learn, and keep pushing my capabilities as a person, but I’ve learned this does not always equate to my happiness. My happiness is increased by positive thought patterns, carving time out of an ever-increasing busy schedule for time with those I love, enjoying my everyday tasks, and doing for others as I wish done to me. My wife asked me, “what the heck a treadmill has to do with beef and/or my audience?”  I had to think about that and I see her point, but I argue isn’t the pursuit of happiness relatable to everybody?

- Pat


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