The Hedonic Treadmill – If Only Happiness Were Just a Marriage, a Big House, and Kids
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Creating happiness is harder than you think – many of the activities you think will make you happier… do very little.
Having money, a perfect family and great kids will not, by itself, intrinsically bring happiness. Many of the goals that people strive for are the same way.
See whatDaniel Kahneman, founder of Behavioral Economics had to say about happiness:
“People are exposed to many messages that encourage them to believe that a change of weight, scent, hair color (or coverage), car, clothes, or many other aspects will produce a marked improvement in their happiness. Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think.”
On the other hand, creating happiness can be easier than you ever imagined – many of the activities you ignore, like cultivating gratitude, do very much even with little effort.
Sidebar: If you'd also like to learn how to increase your overall happiness, then I recommend checking out this book that has 53 specific happiness habits you can incorporate into your life.
Hedonic Treadmill: The Video
Would you rather watch a video on the Hedonic Treadmill? We’ve summarized the best ways to avoid the pitfalls of the Hedonic Treadmill and turned it into a video that presents the key points and strategies. Enjoy!
The power of adaptation.
Imagine you’re a college football star, on track to get drafted by a pro team. One day you get into an accident. You’ve been paralyzed by the waist down.
You’d be right in expecting that you’d feel terrible, like everything you’d been living for was now gone, an unreachable impossibility.
But slowly, your desires and expectations will adjust. You’ll stop dreaming of fame and football, and start dreaming of other, more normal things, like getting married or buying a house. No doubt, you’d have had a happier life if you hadn’t been paralyzed. But don’t negate your ability to adapt.
After a few years, many paraplegics feel almost as good as they did before being disabled. Many feel almost as good within a few months. Humans are remarkably adaptable – how else would we have taken over the whole world?
The problem with adaptation.
Imagine you’re a working class Joe. You’ve got a wife and two kids. More than anything else, you want to get promoted. Because once you do, everything will change – you’ll be able to replace your 10-year-old car, buy new clothes for your wife, take your kids on vacation.
Being hard-working, you get that promotion. For a few days, maybe even a few weeks, you’re living in wonderland. You’re happy.
But then you notice your neighbor’s car – a shiny $35,000 Lexus. You want it.
More than anything else, you want to get promoted. Because once you do, everything will change.
Being hardworking, you get that promotion. For a few days, maybe even a few weeks, you’re living in wonderland.
But then… and on, and on, and on.
Yes, as we get more famous, more powerful, more beautiful, and more wealthy we get happier but much less than we’d expect – much less than we’d hope.
It’s called a rat race for a reason.
The adaptiveness of adaptation.
“Automatic habituation is adaptive because it allows constant stimuli [your beautiful spouse or big house] to fade into the background. Thus, resources remain available to deal with novel stimuli [your slowing computer or a promotion opportunity], which are most likely to require immediate attention. The happiness system is thus hypothesized to reflect changes in circumstances rather than the overall desirability of the circumstances themselves.”
- Ed Diener, The Science of Well-Being8
Imagine that, for you, this was untrue. That all you cared about were absolute levels.
I guarantee you’d become a social parasite.
Our material standard of living is several hundreds of times greater than just five thousand years ago.
The material standard of living of a homeless person in modern-day Manhattan is several dozens of times higher than the wealthiest of kings ten thousand years ago.
If all you cared about were absolute levels, you’d be happy living as an unproductive hobo – your rubber shoes and television set would keep you happy and occupied today, tomorrow, and until you died.
So thank goodness we adapt and have endless ambition, without which we would have been satisfied hunting animals and living in caves for all time, never inventing medicine, computers, or cars.
More realistically, without the hedonic treadmill, our species would have gone extinct – our ancestors would have died.
I wish I was just being dramatic. Not so. Two examples from the caveman era:
1. You’re thirsty. That thirst is a novel stimulus, so your brain pays more attention to it and increases the reward for drinking water (e.g. think of how good it feels to drink water after hard exercise in hot weather). That’s because of hedonic adaptation. Without it, you would have died in at least two different ways:
- Rather than your desire to drink water being dependent on your thirst, it would always be the same (or be high at certain fixed intervals). I know, hard to imagine. The result is that in those few critical moments when you really need to drink, you’d only consume a small amount if any.
- If the brain decided to solve that problem by always maintaining a high desire for water, you would die from overhydration (drinking too much water).
2. You want status. So you spend your free time making new friends, practicing your hunting, and experimenting with tools. Without adaptation:
- You would have been satisfied having just one friend. In the wild, that’s dangerous.
- Whenever you were full, you would have sat around in bliss – happy that all was good in the world. When tough times came, you would have been completely unprepared. Death.
I’m not an anthropologist – some of the details might be off, but the overall picture is clear – hedonic adaptation is necessary for growth and survival.
The problem is when we let our endless pursuit of growth overwhelm and block our quest to find happiness. This puts us on the hedonic treadmill.
We can have both – happiness and growth, but for that, we first have to understand what things keep us on the hedonic treadmill. This isn’t me moralizing – I won’t tell you what should or shouldn’t make you happy.
This is dozens of years of science conducted on hundreds of thousands of people speaking for itself. Some things just don’t make people happy, no matter how much they might think or want those things to.
“One of the most important and growing costs of the modern way of life is ‘cultural
fraud’: the promotion of images and ideals of ‘the good life’ that serve the economy but do not meet psychological needs, nor reflect social realities.” -Richard Eckersley
There are three strong lines of evidence which support the hedonic treadmill theory:
- A growing list of traditional life pursuits are being found to have zero to only small correlations with happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction. These include: beauty, money, sunshine, education, children, and choice.
- A growing number of longitudinal studies which have tracked people over the decades of their life have found that as their life circumstances have changed, their happiness has remained mostly unchanged (presumably because they spent their time focused on misleading goals, like money and status).
- A growing number of studies conducted on twins have shown that genetic factors may account for as much as half of one’s subjective well-being. That is, despite some twins being much richer than their counterparts, their average level of happiness was similar. These three lines of evidence taken together indicate that the successful pursuit of happiness requires a departure from the business as usual approach to life. That getting married, buying a house, and having kids aren’t enough. That seeking wealth and fame is a dead-end. That the successful pursuit of happiness requires intentionally pursuing counter-intuitive life strategies.
Can happiness really be measured?
Happiness can’t be perfectly measured, but it can be approximately measured – accurately enough that several western countries are now considering adopting Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index – a quantitative attempt at assessing the happiness and well-being of entire populations.
Here are two things to consider:
- The most modern measures of happiness are several factors more accurate than their older counterparts. As scientists learn more about happiness, their measuring tools improve. Yes, happiness is subjective – but that doesn’t mean it can’t be approximately measured.
- These measures correlate well with alternative measures of happiness, which can be more objectively assessed. For example, The Satisfaction with Life Scale correlates with expression of positive emotion, incidence of depression, and impressions from friends and family. Other scales correlate well with stress levels, lifespan, intensity and frequency of both positive and negative emotions, income, incidence of divorce, social capital, and more.
What this means is that at the very least, measures of happiness are indirectly measuring all of the above variables (e.g. incidence of divorce and frequency of positive emotion). In other words, scientists can predict how long you will live, what your income will be, and how likely you are to get a divorce based on their estimate of your level of happiness. I care enough about those things to take happiness science seriously, even if there’s lots of room for improvement. Do you?
What things stop giving us happiness because of adaptation?
"Beauty might bring happiness, but happiness always brings beauty." - Kevyn Aucoin
You might think being handsome or beautiful would strongly impact your self-esteem, social connections, and happiness… but it doesn’t.
The good-looking are on average 7% happier than the bad-looking.1,2
The hundreds of hours of dieting, going to the gym, and putting on make-up (or flexing, for men) increase happiness by a colossal 7%.
The more attractive you become, the more attractive the people you tend to hangout with. We compare ourselves to those we spend the most time with. All we care if our friends think we’re attractive, not the random ugly stranger on the street. The best approach would seem to be both increasing your levels of attractiveness while making friends with ugly people 😉
Becoming more attractive allows you to attract more beautiful partners, but that ability poorly correlates with happiness. First, your expectations increase. Second, after a few weeks or month, you’ll begin to take the beauty of your partner more and more for granted. Third, the traits most correlated with relationship success and marital satisfaction are unrelated to physical appearance. They are personality traits, like self-compassion, extraversion, gratitude, and optimism.
The one exception may be urban females.
“Urban settings (but not rural settings) promote a“free market” of relationships in which attractiveness, a basis for personal choice, is an important determinant of social and psychological well-being.”
- Does Attractiveness Buy Happiness3
Having lived in NYC, I agree. As a child living in suburban American, I had no choice but to play with my neighbors. They would have played with me regardless of my appearance.
When I lived in the city I didn’t even know my neighbor’s names. If I was super-attractive, that may have been different.
In an urban setting, attractiveness helps form connections, especially if you’re female. In urban settings, the pressure to be beautiful is strong, mostly if you’re female.
So if you live in a city, are female, and your weight is giving you anxiety, lose weight. But that takes months and mountains of willpower. Do something easier.
If becoming more attractive is one of your goals, it’s because you want more social approval. You want more self-esteem, more attention, and more smiles directed your way. I understand. I want to be more attractive too.
But there is an easier way. Make better friends. Be interesting. Be zestful. Volunteer. Join clubs. Be passionate. Stop being annoying.
What about kids?
If your kid is fat and that gives her anxiety, that’s a problem. But if she has that anxiety because you keep telling her she needs to lose weight, you may want to stop. For the average child, physical appearance has no correlation with happiness.4
Takeaway: Ugly people are happy too.
“Money often costs too much.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Money has a small correlation with well-being. Those with an income greater than 70% of other Americans are approximately 20% happier than those in the bottom 10%.5 Past a family income of $10,000, income has a trivial correlation with well-being, accounting for just 2% of the variance in well-being.22 However, unemployment can have a long-term, negative effect on life satisfaction among up to half of the population.23.24
Money buys happiness and increases life satisfaction. Just take a look at the graph below – as income increases, so does happiness.5
Ah my apologies, that’s the wrong graph. I forgot the first rule of statistics: mislead, mislead, mislead. Let’s change the scale to make the relationship look stronger.
That’s better – now we see a clear relationship. More money = more happiness.
According to a multi-year, national survey of more than 50,000 Americans, the average person with a family income of $60,000 is about 20% happier than someone with a family income of $15,000.5
How can the difference be so small? So small that I had to manipulate the graph? The poor are more resilient than we thought; the rich more ambitious and overworked. As a person’s wealth rises, their ability to savor the mundane aspects of life decreases – they come to require more and more.6,21
In my previous life as a consultant, the high pay came with long hours and high stress. I was working 60 hours a week.
It’s the same for all high-paying jobs. Lawyer, doctor, investment banker, or consultant – if you’re getting paid above average, you’re also working longer than average.
Was the extra 20 hours of work each week worth a 20% increase in life satisfaction? No.
A five minutes a day, 30 minutes a week gratitude journal could have done the same. More even.
Let’s get geeky.
When evaluating a decision, estimate the potential benefit and the potential cost. If the benefit is high and the cost low, great. If it’s the other way around, stay away.
In everyday life, this is called common sense. In the world of business, this calculation is called return on investment (ROI).
A high paying job will cost about 20 extra hours each week in additional work and stress. Its potential reward is about a 20% increase in life satisfaction and happiness.
In other words, you should quit your stressful job and start spending some more time being grateful. Or don’t quit. A gratitude journal takes less than 30 minutes a week.
Takeaway: Materialism is inefficient.
However, the one exception is unemployment. Even years after getting laid off, many participants of a 15-year study were still less happy than before – that is, they were unable to fully adapt to their new circumstances. Worse, the effect was still present among many of those who were re-employed. That suggests that unemployment is one of the strongest psychological shocks in the world, comparable to the death of one’s spouse.
However, for the average person, the long-term impact of unemployment is small – lowering life satisfaction by 2 to 4%.23,24
High responders represent approximately 30% of the population.
“A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.” - Steve Martin
Remember the last time you had a warm soup or apple cider during the winter? Or a cold soda or beer during summer? It felt good. Because of the contrast.
There is no hot without cold; no cold without hot.
I’m not getting philosophical. Humidity after a clear day is correlated with reduced vigor and happiness.7 Sunshine after a cloudy day is correlated with increased mood.9
But sunshine after sunshine is correlated with nothing.
Because if every day was warm and sunny, you would get used to it.
A study of 1,993 Americans living in California, Michigan, and Ohio found no correlation between location and life satisfaction. That is, although people in the midwest complained about their poor weather, although they also said they would be happier if they lived under California’s bright sun, although Californian’s said that their bright sun makes them happier, Midwesterners were just as happy as Californians.10
We have a tendency to take things for granted. The weather is no exception. A 2006 study found that the only time rising temperature was correlated with rising mood was in spring when the memory of cold winter was still in mind.11
Weather is also not that important. Most of the time, we’re indoors completely unconcerned about the temperature and humidity. In the California study, the weather was ranked last in importance out of 11 items. Would you rather have good job prospects, a vibrant social life, financial security, or nice weather?
I would rather have the first three.
There is one exception – living in an extremely cold region with below average levels of sunshine is correlated with reduced wellbeing.12 In places like Alaska and Greenland seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is much more common. SAD is depression brought on by poor weather and lack of sunlight.
Takeaway: Avoid really cold and dark places. Everything else is not much different.
“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” ― Aristotle
Educational attainment has an extremely small correlation with well-being. In one study of 2,310 twins, education accounted for less than 2% of the variance in well-being.22 A more recent study of 2,727 Americans found a slightly larger but still tiny correlation between education and well-being.13
I love to learn – I read new research papers and books every week. Does that love of learning correlate with increased life satisfaction?
Sometimes. A survey of 2,727 Americans found that those with a high level of education were twice as likely than those with a low level of education to be very happy.13
But that same survey found that those with a low level of education were 47% more likely to be the happiest than those with a high level of education.13
I would rather be happiest than very happy. It seems it would be better for me to enjoy, rather than to always question.
Knowledge is power. No one said that power is happiness.
Knowledge teases, with the hope of the grand things our lives can be, but also with the despair of the grand things our lives are not.
The character strength “love of learning” has one of the weakest associations with well-being and life satisfaction, being outdone by strengths like compassion, gratitude, and zest.14
These results have been confirmed by a meta-analysis of over eight surveys measuring over 100,000 people.15
The very happy are the most economically productive – making money and driving innovation.
The happiest people are the most socially productive – spending more of their time on developing their relationships and their communities.
So is a high level of education worth it? If you’re just looking for happiness, then no. You don’t need a PhD, Masters, or even an Undergraduate degree.
One faculty member used to chide proud PhD students by saying, “I don’t see why you think it’s such a great accomplishment — all my friends have a Ph.D!”
Demographics are poorly correlated with life satisfaction.
All of us want more than happiness – we also want meaning and purpose. Many people choose to have kids to fill that need. I would rather learn as much as I can and share that knowledge with all of you.
For that I may need to make a sacrifice.
I may need to choose ‘very happy’ over ‘happiest’.
Oh the sacrifice ;).
Takeaway: Cheap education is the best education.
“Parents are unhappy. I’ve checked, and for every subgroup of the population I analyzed, parents report being less happy than similarly situated nonparents.”- Betsy Stevenson
Parents also make a sacrifice – in choosing to raise children, they (intentionally or not) are choosing meaning over happiness.
I’ve looked at the data myself – there is a negative correlation between happiness and having kids.17,18,19 They also showed that kids decrease rather than increase marital satisfaction.
Two recent studies suggest that parents are actually happier than non-parents, and that their studies are more accurate than the previous ones.
I don’t think it’s that clean-cut. This active debate indicates that there is no clear correlation either way.
Maybe kids will make you happy. Maybe they won’t. Even if they make your happier… it probably won’t be by much.
So if you’re looking to have children to improve your marriage or to make you happy, like 76% of Pew respondents, who answered that one of the main reasons for their having kids was the ‘joy of children’, you may be making a mistake.
Think about it – you’ll spend thousands of hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars raising your children. If you spent that same time meditating, exercising, and strengthening your social relationships, and learning new skills, you’d be guaranteed to be happier.
But there is more to life than happiness, which is probably why despite the data, Betsy decided to have kids.
Three recent studies suggest that having children increases meaning and purpose in life. And of course – all of us want to leave a legacy. For some, it will be our children, for others our books, and for others our companies.
If you want children to be your legacy, and you’re willing to sacrifice your time, money, and peace of mind for it, I applaud you. I need your kids to fund my social security.
Takeaway: Kids are for meaning and purpose. Friends and vacations are for happiness.
*Ironically, across all of these studies, men with children had greater well-being than women with children. I’m so glad I’m a man. Not only do I not have to give birth, I don’t have to have periods , or change
any as many diapers.
**If you’d like to better understand how, on average, having kids can possibly reduce happiness, I recommend the book Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert.
“The growth of options and opportunities for choice has three, related, unfortunate effects. It means that decisions require more effort. It makes mistakes more likely. It makes the psychological consequences of mistakes more severe.” - Barry Schwartz
A few months ago I was having a quarter-life crisis. That’s what gave birth to this blog.
Quarter-life crises are a new phenomenon. So are mid-life crises. So is the fact that the average person will change careers seven to ten times over their lifetime.20
Why the changes? The burden of choice and pains of possibilities unreached.
Some choice is good. It gives birth to individuality. It gives us a feeling of control.
Too much choice is bad. It overwhelms.
From the book Paradox of Choice:
“I want a pair of jeans—32–28,” I said. “Do you want them slim fit, easy fit, relaxed fit, baggy, or extra baggy?” she replied. “Do you want them stonewashed, acid-washed, or distressed? Do you want them button-fly or zipper-fly? Do you want them faded or regular?”
I was stunned… I decided to try them all…
The jeans I chose turned out just fine, but it occurred to me that day that buying a pair of pants should not be a daylong project. By vastly expanding the range of choices, they had created a problem. Before these options were available, purchasing jeans was a five-minute affair. Now it was a complex decision in which I was forced to invest time, energy, and no small amount of self-doubt, anxiety, and dread.”
And that’s just pants.
We of Gen X and Y know we can travel the world, save starving children, rise the corporate ladder, and dream big dreams. Our worlds are no longer limited to the town we grew up in. The possibilities are exciting.
The possibilities are also crushing. With every fork come dozens of choices that need evaluation. With every choice made, there are dozens of possibilities turned away, waiting to fester into regret.
With power and opportunity come responsibility – the requirement to evaluate more and more choices. It can be draining.
Soon I will be moving. A part of me wants to comb through the data and create complicated statistical models to rank all of my choices. A part of me knows that the data is a curse, because NYC or San Francisco, Singapore or Boston, there are people. As long as there are people, I will be happy.
Takeaway: Simplify. Uncertainty feels bad, simplicity feels good.
Finally, one of the best ways to get off the hedonic treadmill is to build habits that are related to real happiness. If you'd like to learn more, then be sure to check out this book that has 53 specific happiness habits you can build.
Related Articles & Research
1. Daniel S. Hamermesh & Jason Abrevaya, 2011. “”Beauty Is the Promise of Happiness”?,” NBER Working Papers 17327, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.2. World Happiness Report, 2012
3. PLAUT, V. C., ADAMS, G., & ANDERSON, S. L. (2009). Does attractiveness buy happiness? “It depends on where you’re from”. Personal Relationships, 16(4), 619-630. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2009.01242.x
4. Holder, M. D., & Coleman, B. (2008). The contribution of temperament, popularity, and physical appearance to children’s happiness. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 9(2), 279-302. doi:10.1007/s10902-007-9052-7
5. General Social Surveys, 1972-2006
6. Quoidbach, J., Dunn, E. W., Petrides, K. V., & Mikolajczak, M. (2010). Money Giveth, Money Taketh Away The Dual Effect of Wealth on Happiness. Psychological Science, 21(6), 759-763.
7. Sanders, J. L., & Brizzolara, M. S. (1982). RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN WEATHER AND MOOD. Journal Of General Psychology, 107(1), 155.
8. Diener, E., Oishi, S., & Lucas, R. E. (2009). 17 Subjective Well-Being: The Science of Happiness and Life Satisfaction. Oxford handbook of positive psychology, 187.
9. Howarth, E. E., & Hoffman, M. S. (1984). A multidimensional approach to the relationship between mood and weather. British Journal Of Psychology, 75(1), 15.
10. Schkade, D. A., & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does Living in California Make People Happy?. Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell), 9(5), 340.
11. Aaronson, L. (2006). Happiness Is a Beach, Sometimes. Psychology Today, 39(1), 27.
12. Rehdanz, K., & Maddison, D. (2005). Climate and happiness. Ecological Economics, 52(1), 111-125. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2004.06.015
13. World Values Survey Databank, United States , United States , United States , United States 
14. Park, N., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. (2004). Strengths of character and well-being. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 23(5), 603-619.
16. Oishi, S., Diener, E., & Lucas, R. E. (2007). The optimal level of well-being: Can we be too happy? Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 346-360.
17. Clark, A.E. and Oswald, A.J. (2002a). “Well-Being in Panels”, mimeo, University of Warwick.
18. Rafael Di Tella & Robert J. MacCulloch & Andrew J. Oswald, 2003. “The Macroeconomics of Happiness,” The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 85(4), pages 809-827, November.
19. Alesina, Alberto, Rafael Di Tella and Robert MacCulloch. “Inequality And Happiness: Are Europeans And Americans Different?,” Journal of Public Economics, 2004, v88(9-10,Aug), 2009-2042.
20. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employee Tenure Summary, 2010, USDL-10-1278
21. Easterlin, R. A. (2001). Income and happiness: Towards a unified theory. The economic journal, 111(473), 465-484.
22. Lykken, D., & Tellegen, A. (1996). Happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. Psychological Science, 7(3), 186-189.
23. Richard E. Lucas, Andrew E. Clark, Yannis Georgellis, and Ed Diener. Unemployment alters the set point for life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 15(1):8–13, 2004.
24. Baird, B. M., Lucas, R. E., & Donnellan, M. B. (2010). Life satisfaction across the lifespan: Findings from two nationally representative panel studies. Social indicators research, 99(2), 183-203.