The hedonic treadmill

About thirty years ago, Philip Brickman, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, organised a team of researchers to investigate the happiness levels of lottery winners. The team found that while lottery winners were initially elated upon landing their great fortune, those feelings of elations tended to dissipate rapidly. As the winners recalibrated their happiness levels, many of the activities they had previously enjoyed (such as reading or sitting down to a good meal) became less pleasurable over time, such that within a few months, the wealthy winners reported being no happier than they had been before hitting the jackpot. Brickman called this adaptational phenomenon the “hedonic treadmill”: the term was dead on in describing the human predisposition to feel entitled to today what we used to feel thankful for yesterday.

Youngme Moon provides a neat summary the hedonic treadmill (Different p. 59).

What strikes me about the hedonic treadmill is that it feels at first counter-intuitive. Once you understand it, however, you start to see it everywhere. The happiness that you feel on getting a new job, new house or accomplishing a goal doesn't last, you find yourself no more or less happy than you were before.

There are three things that interest me here. The first is the idea of “entitlement”, the second has something to do with occasional rediscovery and the last concerns intrinsic motivation.

“Entitlement” is a word that is often used disparagingly in the UK to describe the behavior of people in lower socioeconomic brackets. This probably has largely to do with the government's use of the word. It's always perplexed me, though. I've seen more entitlement among people in the middle class (or above) than I have among so-called “benefits scroungers.”

The idea of hedonic adaptation (as well as loss aversion) helps to explain this. As we acquire more and more economic goods, we temporarily get a boost in happiness. Loss aversion ensures that we don't want to lose what we already have, but hedonic adaptation gives the illusion that we'll only be happier if we acquire more. This comes across as entitlement. We deserve what we have. After all, we've worked hard for it (unlike those people we choose to look down on).

Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman discuss a similar phenomenon in the paper that originally described hedonic adaptation.

American soldiers in World War II with a high school education or better had greater chances of being promoted but were less happy with their promotion chances… The better educated soldiers saw themselves as doing poorly compared to their peers in civilian life or their peers who were already officers. Less well educated soldiers, on the other hand, saw themselves as reasonably well off compared to similar others in civilian life or their peers in the service.

That feeling of “doing poorly” perfectly describes what I'm referring to here as entitlement. Both in myself and others, I've found this sort of entitlement to an ugly, somewhat inexplicable trait. Getting my head around hedonic adaptation means that I better understand why it happens. That doesn't make it any less ugly, but it starts to get at how it could be changed.

As I read more about hedonic adaptation, I started to see some patterns where I felt I was able to escape hedonic adaptation. Dan Gilbert made a quip in Stumbling on Happiness (p. 130) that helped to bring this into focus for me.

When we have an experience­ — hearing a particular sonata, making love with a particular person, watching the sun set from a particular window of a particular room — on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time. Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage.

It occurred to me that there a certain experiences that never seem to get old: the drums coming in on The National’s “Fake Empire”, rereading certain Borges stories, going on a walk on the weekend with my family. And I think the key here is rediscovery. I don't return to Fake Empire or The Garden of Forking Paths that often: once a year at most, if that.

Our weekend walks are designed to be different. We try to avoid doing the same thing, doing the same walk. Each walk is a new adventure: we walk new paths, find new rocks, identify new plants. There's a risk with this approach. We've been on some terrible walks, but we've discovered some great ones, too. As with books and music, we occasionally return to the great walks, usually when we want to share them with some friends, but we don't return to them again and again.

This seems to point to one way of avoiding the treadmill of hedonic adaptation: that original pleasure doesn't dissipate if you return to an experience occasionally. However, I'm not entirely sure if this is enough to deal with the problem of entitlement. A job isn't something you can return to occasionally. A house must be lived in. A goal, once accomplished, is likely to lose its lustre

I think the key probably lies in focusing on intrinsic motivation, choosing to focus on the challenges of a job or career, rather than the promotion; seeing a house as a base of operations, rather than as an investment; choosing goals that make real difference rather than those that improve your net worth. It's an ideal, and not an easy one at that. I'm nowhere near living in that way, but I'm starting to believe that just trying is well worth it.