Time to get off the Hedonic Treadmill?

Do you sometimes find yourself dreaming about how good it would be, or how much better you would feel when you got what you wanted? A new car, a bigger house, a promotion at work, a special holiday, even a new partner.

Getting those things give us a boost of happiness, but have you ever noticed that feeling of satisfaction being less intense or more short-lived than you had imagined?

The hedonic treadmill is the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. As a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise, so there is no permanent gain in happiness.

This can result in constant spending for short term dopamine hits. New gadgets, clothes, eating out, even gifts to friends and family…..none of it tends to improve long term happiness. It’s like chasing rainbows.

Hedonic adaptation

Back in 1978, researchers Philip Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman published a study about the relative happiness of lottery winners and accident victims.

Part of the study found that despite the extremely positive experience of winning the lottery, recipients tend to become accustomed to their new wealth. Before long, they return to a baseline level of general happiness – they adapt to their new circumstances and the new feelings of pleasure after winning the lottery become less intense and eventually fade away to become just normal.

Interestingly, this return to baseline happiness was also true of accident victims. Despite extremely negative events in life, people tend to adapt to their new situation. A conclusion of the research was that broadly speaking, lottery winners are not any happier than accident victims.

So the expression ‘hedonic adaptation’ is the tendency to return to our set level of happiness, despite life’s up and downs. As a result, many of us end up on the treadmill of buying new things in a never-ending quest to buy more happiness.

Getting off the treadmill

The coronavirus pandemic is causing a lot of people to re-assess what’s important. Lockdowns and restrictions on our freedom have affected everyone differently, but for those fortunate to have remained in stable employment, a lot of money is being saved. Millions of workers now have lower commuting costs and less opportunity to spend money in restaurants and shops.

It’s a reminder of how consumerist our society has become in normal times. Constant advertising urges us to buy stuff, upgrade things and generally to believe that what we currently have is not good enough.

Focusing time on our wellbeing rather than material purchases is a good way to get off this treadmill of spending habits. The five areas of wellbeing – purpose, social, financial, community and physical – can help give us direction and act as a barometer of how we are.

Studies show that spending time on experiences and helping others will provide more happiness in the long run, so focussing our efforts on those things can help break the cycle of spending.

Set big goals

Aligning your daily actions with your long-term goals is a good way to live with purpose and to increase happiness, but it can be hard to do. The vast majority of people have not set great big, audacious goals. We may have dreams of what we’d like to do and where we’d like to be in the future, but without having a plan and taking action, they just remain as dreams.

Much of this comes down to our own self-limiting beliefs and these are nigh on impossible to challenge without help from others.

Coaches can help inspire, motivate and guide us towards short and medium term goals and good financial planning is all about setting and reviewing progress towards long term life goals.

When’s the last time you shared your big dreams with someone else, then worked up a plan to achieve them?


Our happiness levels can be changed temporarily through circumstances, including the purchase of new things. But we quickly adjust back to our emotional baseline.

Working towards big, meaningful goals and acknowledging the progress we make along the way can provide as much happiness as reaching the goal itself.

So if you find yourself chasing happiness with continual purchases, give yourself permission to dream and start thinking big. Financial coaching could be a way to help define those long-term life goals and then begin enjoying the journey.

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