Think about the last time you wanted something. Really wanted something. The thing you were convinced would make you happy once you had it. Was it a new iPhone? A high-paying job? A relationship?
Now think about what happened after you got it. Did it make you happy? if yes, did it still make you happy after a fews day? A month? a year? Do you still sit around each day thinking about how happy that thing makes you even now?
Or like the vast majority of people, did you just sort of get used to it, find something new to chase after and convince yourself that this was the thing that would actually make you happy? If so, it sounds like you’ve found yourself on the hedonic treadmill.
The hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation, is the idea that we tend to return to stable levels of happiness, even after a major change in our lives. That’s why there are lottery winners who find themselves no happier than before they won millions, and amputees who are no less happy than they were before they lost a limb. It doesn’t matter if at the time they thought what was happening to them was the greatest thing ever or the worst. Humans adapt, they start taking things for granted, they find themselves with new things that bring them happiness and new sets of problems.
On the one hand, this is great news. Not getting into the college of your choice, not getting that promotion you wanted, not ending up with the person you were convinced was the one…none of those individual things are going to affect your long-term happiness. I know it feels like the worst thing ever, but guess what? Scientific research shows that people are really bad at predicting how happy or unhappy something is going to make them.
But wait, what about the good things? Does that mean nothing’s actually going to make you truly happy? It turns out, there are a few ways you can increase how much happiness you get out of the good things.
For starters, you can take some time each day to practice gratitude. I’ve done this practice off and on over the years, but I’ve only really gotten serious about dedicating time to it in the last few weeks. I spend about ten minutes writing about a few things in my journal that I really appreciate. It can be something good that happened that day or it can be something or someone that’s been there all along. Sometimes, I’ll find myself writing about things I never even think about, like the fact that I have two working eyes that let me appreciate all the beauty in the world or that I have running water in my apartment. It makes me feel fortunate for all the good things in my life, even on days when things aren’t going my way.
Another thing you can do is practice savoring. If you’ve ever seen a Korean variety show, one staple is the cast being presented with some kind of food. It doesn’t matter if it’s home-cooked kimchi fried rice or a meal prepared by a world-class chef. The cast will ooh and ahh over it, making noises of exaggerated contentment and smiling with each bite. It’s the reason why I always find myself ordering Korean takeout after watching these shows. They’re so good at enjoying something simple, that it makes me want to experience the same sort of joy. Try it the next time you find yourself eating something delicious, having a really good conversation with friends, traveling somewhere amazing. Be present in the moment, and really engage all of your senses. Savor every moment and keep reminding yourself how lucky you are to enjoy the moment.
But one of the absolutely best things you can do is to change what you actually value. Prioritize experiences over possessions. What are the moments from your past that still make you smile after all these years? I bet it’s that time you baked cookies with your family, rocked out at an amazing concert, watched cheesy romcoms with your best friend. I’m willing to bet one of those memories was not the day you bought your AirPods.
All my life, I had the mindset that once all the things on my checklist were completed, I would be perfectly happy and find myself wanting for nothing else. I did check some of those things off, but then I would find new things to add to the list making it impossible to truly ever make it to the end of the list.
I think the most important lesson of the hedonic treadmill is this: you don’t need to wait for everything to align perfectly in your life. Happiness isn’t some distant thing that will always be just out of reach. Hop off the treadmill. When you stop running, you’ll find the thing you’ve been chasing all these years has been within reach the whole time.