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Self-help today: Pursuing happiness on the hedonic treadmill

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We all think we know what will make us happy. Maybe it's a new car, a new house, or a new body. And we find ourselves becoming absorbed in our obsession by studying advertisements, researching features, and admiring people who have already acquired said thing. Then one day you finally get it. You are ecstatically happy - at least for a little while. Why doesn't the happiness last?

The components of happiness

There are three main elements that contribute to happiness: pleasure, meaning, and engagement.

  • Pleasure. Pleasure consists of the sensory enjoyments in life that tie into comfort and satisfaction. There are many sources of pleasure. For example, eating fine food, getting a massage, or listening to music could be fall under the category of pleasure. Pleasurable events alone, however, do not complete the happiness equation.
  • Meaning. People find meaning in their lives by being a part of and contributing to something bigger than themselves. Social activities such as joining a church, serving in a soup kitchen, or volunteering at a school are good examples of how people find fulfillment through meaningful interaction.
  • Engagement is accomplishing activities that involve challenges and require a person to use their skills and strengths. Usually engagement is seen in the context of doing something you are good at and that you enjoy like playing a sport, strumming a guitar, or writing an essay. You know you are engaged when you in a state of "flow" and time seems to stand still.

These three factors together cause a person to achieve the subjective state that we call "happiness". The problem comes when we get stuck in the erroneous belief that instant gratification and materialistic pleasures are the only sources of happiness. Enter the hedonic treadmill……

The hedonic treadmill

Basically, the hedonic treadmill is a metaphorical reference to a theory based on the human tendency to focus on an object of desire, achieve that desire, experience brief happiness, and then change focus to another desire. You have probably experienced this cycle in your own life. As an example, say you want a new car. You believe that if you could obtain this car, your life would be changed. Instantly, you would feel great satisfaction and your life would be more complete. You locate the car of your dreams, save the required amount of money, and finally make the purchase. You are probably overjoyed with your new love and are likely to be very happy, indeed, as you proudly sport your new ride. But this state of bliss may last for a few months, at best. Eventually, your car will become just be a way to get from here to there - a lot like your old car. Sadly, you find that your life is no more complete than it was before you bought the car.

The theory behind the hedonic treadmill states that misdirected efforts to increase happiness generally fail. People usually return to their own particular "set-point" of happiness. In other words, few objects or events in life have the ability to significantly impact happiness on a long-term basis. The reason for this is that we, as humans, are hard-wired to continuously adapt to our circumstances.

"Stuff" isn't the answer

If materialism doesn't make a lot of difference in people's life, what does? In our consumer-driven society, there is a great amount of pressure to spend money on things. However, if you can find the courage to buck the system a little and go against the popular sway you may just end up being one of the truly fortunate ones that finds an extra measure of happiness. Try getting off of the hedonic treadmill by incorporating these fulfilling exercises instead:

  • Consciously do something nice for somebody else each day. It could be as simple as holding the door open for the person behind you.
  • Achieve "flow". Get lost in an activity. It could be a jigsaw puzzle, a sport, or a hobby. The goal is to activate your skills and engage them in a meaningful way.
  • Spend time reflecting. Identify the pleasurable portions of your day, but also acknowledge those events that give deeper significance and meaning to life.

There is more to lasting happiness than simply feeling good all of the time. Happiness depends largely upon intangibles like investing in quality relationships, contributing to the lives of others, and pursuing purpose through meaningful activities.


Peterson, C., Park, N., & Seligman, M. E. (2005). Orientations to happiness and life satisfaction: The full life versus the empty life. Journal of Happiness Studies, 6, 25-41.

Seligman, Martin E. P. (2002), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, New York: Free Press.

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