Running on the Hedonic Treadmill

One of the weirdest phenomena I have ever experienced is when I realized that I get more pleasure out of going to, say, a bookstore once a month than I get out of going to that same bookstore every day.

It sounds really weird and counterintuitive, but it’s true.

Whenever I go into a bookstore, I usually enjoy the experience. I’ll perhaps buy a book or a magazine while I’m in there and I leave feeling good.

The problem is that the good feeling I have from the experience is much smaller if I’ve been there recently. If I haven’t been in a bookstore for a while, I get a big good feeling from that visit. On the other hand, if I’m going to a bookstore after having just visited one yesterday, or having visited a bookstore several times this week, I don’t get much of a feeling at all.

It’s ordinary.

Last week, I was reading the book “The Antidote” by Oliver Burkeman, which actually discussed this phenomenon in detail. He termed it “hedonic adaptation,” but after digging directly into that term, I found that the term “hedonic treadmill,” which describes the same exact thing, to be more visually illuminating.

Here’s a brief explanation of hedonic treadmill from Wikipedia (which isn’t the perfect source, but is pretty good for a brief explanation):

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.

What does that mean?

Hedonic adaptation is a process or mechanism that reduces the affective impact of emotional events. Generally, hedonic adaptation involves a happiness “set point,” whereby humans generally maintain a constant level of happiness throughout their lives, despite events that occur in their environment.

So, let’s put that in alignment with my bookstore visit.

When I visit a bookstore occasionally, it’s not a part of my normal environment. I get a burst of positive feeling which fades pretty quickly. It doesn’t last for a long time.

When I visit a bookstore regularly, it becomes a part of my normal environment. Because of that, I’m not made any happier by a bookstore visit. Furthermore, and this is the important part, I’m not any happier now than I was before the time that bookstore visits became a regular part of my life.

Thus, when I visit the bookstore infrequently enough that it’s not a regular part of my environment, I actually get bursts of joy. If I visit a bookstore more frequently than that, I lose those bursts of joy but don’t gain any overall sense of happiness about my life.

In other words, I quickly adapt to that new regular part of my environment, but it doesn’t change how I feel about myself or about the world. My relative happiness about life stays the same.

Here’s the kicker, though. When a regular part of your environment costs you money, it’s going to result in a long-term reduction in personal happiness. You’re going to see your options gradually decrease because you’re losing money to this regular part of your environment.

Again, let’s use the bookstore analogy. In the “bad old days,” I visited the bookstore so often that it was just a normal part of my environment. When I was there, I bought books regularly, but it didn’t bring me any real short-term or long-term joy – it’s just what I did.

But, over the long term, all of the money spent there caused a lot of financial problems. We found ourselves deep in consumer debt, a situation that reduced our life’s options. We couldn’t buy a house. We couldn’t take career risks. We were stuck, and that hurt.

How is this a treadmill? Once I was established in the routine of going to a bookstore, I felt a strong need to maintain that routine or else I would lose some degree of lasting happiness. In other words, what kept me going wasn’t that the bookstore visits made me happy, but that I had a strong sense that ending those bookstore visits – stepping off the treadmill, in other words – would make me sad and reduce my quality of life.

Yet, ironically, my quality of life was going down anyway due to the money I was spending there.

The solution, then, was to “get off the treadmill.” I had to stop going to that bookstore. I had to face that sense that stopping my regular bookstore visits was going to cause a horrible negative turn in my life.

Want to know what happened? I stopped going. My life didn’t get worse. In fact, it stayed pretty much the same, at least at first.

The bookstore was just one thing that I kicked off of my hedonic treadmill. I stopped going golfing really regularly. I terminated my daily coffee shop visits. I stopped going out for drinks after work. I stopped going out to eat very often, which was a “few times a week” routine.

Now? I haven’t gone golfing in years. I go to a coffee shop perhaps once every two or three months – and it’s a treat when I do. I don’t go out for drinks any more. I go out to eat with my family perhaps once every two or three weeks – and it’s a treat when I do.

Am I happy, though? Just as you might predict based on the hedonic treadmill idea, I’m basically as happy with my day-to-day life as I was back then.

However, in terms of looking forward to the future, I actually feel happier without all of that stuff in my life.

I don’t feel stress about money. I own a reasonably nice house that I live in with my family. I feel as though our future, at least for a significant while, is fairly secure.

This entire line of thinking has led me to a number of interesting conclusions.

First, I think it’s very important to continue to try to take things off of my hedonic treadmill. Are there things – particularly things with ongoing expenses – that I just consider to be a normal part of my environment that I’ve convinced myself that I can’t live without … that I actually can live without? Cable? My cell phone?

Am I just holding onto those things because I’ve convinced myself that it will be ultra-painful to put them down, but in truth it actually won’t hurt my happiness in the long run one little bit?

For me, part of continuing to grow in my personal finance journey is to try to take different things off of the “treadmill” and see how it goes. Do I need my cell phone… or is that just an illusion I’ve created for myself?

Second, I think one of the most valuable things I can do for my children is to minimize what’s on their treadmill. The less expensive their “normal” is, the easier it is for them to achieve lasting personal and financial success.

As their treadmill ratchets up over time with more and more things that are part of their normal environment, it becomes harder and harder to have other things in life. The best thing I can do for them is to help them figure out a very cost-conscious “normal” as well as an understanding that you don’t need things to make you happy.

Third, I need to be diligent about adding new things to my treadmill. I watch like a hawk for repeated expenses and, when I see them, I try hard to shoo them away and get rid of them before my sense of “normal” adapts to them, because once those things are part of the “normal,” it’s very hard to get rid of them.

Finally, I need to always remember that happiness isn’t found in “stuff” or in expensive experiences. Happiness really does come from inside you. Stuff outside of you can bring little bursts of happiness, but those bursts of happiness do not last and repeating them doesn’t help.

The only thing that creates an authentically higher level of happiness is creating a better set of opportunities for yourself – and that takes a lot of hard work.

The idea of the hedonic treadmill fits perfectly with what I’ve experienced again and again throughout my life. I’ll find something new that brings me a burst of joy, then when it fades, I want that burst again, so I’ll repeat it again. The burst becomes less and less until that new thing becomes a normal part of my life, and then I’m afraid to drop that thing because I sense that my happiness will be less if I drop it.

A much better approach is to appreciate those little bursts of happiness for what they are, recognize that if you repeat them all the time they’ll just go away, and avoid those kinds of unnecessary repeating expenses that brought you joy in the past but mostly persist out of a fear of change and potential unhappiness.

Cancel that cable. Drop that cell phone. It might seem scary, like jumping into a pond or a swimming pool, but trust me, the water is fine.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.