Thursday, December 1, 2011

Are we all riding a hedonic treadmill?

I heard about the concept of the "hedonic treadmill" a few years ago and find myself frequently using it as a metaphor in conversation, but never being able to explain it adequately. I just read a good explanation in the excellent book NutureShock:

Back in 1971, two scholars…described the human condition as a "hedonic treadmill". Essentially, we have to keep working hard just to stay in the same relative place in society. Even when our situation improves, the sense of achievement is only temporary, because our hedonistic desires and expectations rise at the same rate as our circumstances. Brickman and Campbell noted that lottery winners are not any happier, long-term, than non-winners, and paraplegics are not less happy than those us with all our limbs. They argued that this plight was inescapable, due to our neural wiring. Our brains are designed to notice novel stimuli, and tune out everyday, predictable stimuli. What we really notice, and are affected by, are relative and recent changes. As soon as those become static, we return to a baseline level of well-being.
That we are so adaptive can be a good thing. When life falls apart, we'll soon get used to it - such changes in circumstance don't have to become incapacitating. But when our lives are blessed, and things are going well, there seems something morally decrepit in how we so easily overlook how good we have it.
The authors go on to point out subsequent research which has revealed flaws and subtleties in this theory, so I wouldn't think of this as established science: it's more like an interesting way to think about what really makes you fundamentally happy vs. what is mere novelty. For guidance on that front I recommend Man's Search for Meaning.

2 comments:

@wallywhat said...

I agree completely. Everything essentially is relative. That is why people can get so upset about such trivial things. The depth of someone's emotion is really just a matter of departure from normal or expectations. It is why people are still able to get so upset about traffic or their internet being slow (#firstworldproblems) in a world with such human suffering. There emotional pain might be just as real as someone experience legit hardships.

@wallywhat

Brian said...

Very interesting stuff. I think a corollary with this is the extent to which we anticipate certain events or rewards will bring us lasting joy. How often do we tell ourselves "If only ______ would happen, I'd be happy"? Good to be mindful about these tendencies.