October 14, 2021 by Amanda Reill
“Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” - Nathaniel Hawthorne
Defining, capturing, and keeping happiness has been a preoccupation of human thought for as long as we’ve been alive. And yet, it can seem fleeting. We identify something that will bring us happiness, and once it’s in our grasp, we seek out the next best thing, hoping it, too, will bring us happiness.
But we are notoriously bad at predicting what will bring us this elusive happiness. The hedonic treadmill, a psychological concept developed by Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell, posits that human beings tend to maintain a “baseline happiness.” While we can experience positive events that might boost our happiness levels or negative events that might lower our happiness levels, we inevitably return to this baseline.
This concept might seem a bit bleak: that our happiness is simply subject to a baseline that’s out of our control. The good news is that the treadmill is descriptive rather than prescriptive. It describes how people typically maintain their levels of happiness. But it doesn’t say you can’t make changes to your baseline.
One of the key effects of living on a hedonic treadmill is that we’re constantly on the search for the next “high,” or spike in our happiness. But this constant search for deeper fulfillment can have negative consequences as well. We can chase spikes in happiness through compulsive things like purchasing, overeating, or substance abuse. We believe that the “next thing” will be the thing to truly level up our happiness and keep it there. In reality, we look more like a hamster running madly on a wheel.
Time passes. The feeling fades. And we’re back to the baseline again, climbing onto the treadmill to chase the next high.
Discussing this concept with your client may generate a lot of questions. The biggest question, however, is whether or not they have any control over their baseline. It can feel like our happiness is intertwined with our circumstances, and therefore impossible to change. But research shows that a surprising 10% of our response to positive experiences is actually related to our circumstances. On the other hand, 40% of our response is based on our actions, thoughts, and attitude. This means that a lot more of our happiness–and our response to the events in our lives–is within our control.
Adjusting our attitudes toward happiness, and therefore moving our baseline, is well within our grasp. But we can’t do it with willpower alone. What this requires is a change in perspective, and a new mindset toward the good and bad in our lives.
Studies on older adults have shown that no matter what painful experiences they deal with, strong relational bonds and good memories have a huge impact on feelings of fulfillment in old age. In fact, according to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, satisfying relationships at age 50 is the number one predictor of good health at age 80. Fame and wealth need not apply. A positive outlook and a good mood are indicators of adults in secure social bonds.
This leads to some of the steps we can take to adjust our mindset toward happiness. Tal Ben-Shahar, an expert on positive psychology and leadership, offers these suggestions to amplify our happiness and escape the treadmill:
Seeing happiness differently is one of the most important ways to step off of the treadmill and raise your baseline. The other key is the long-term sustainability of that happiness.
Spikes in happiness are temporary, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to stretch them out and enjoy them for longer periods of time. If we sustain our happiness, then it can become part of our daily lives and raise our baseline even higher.
Psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorsen suggests focusing on variety and appreciation to keep happiness from fading. Finding new ways to enjoy that “happiness high” and hold onto it for longer will slowly increase your happiness baseline.
For instance, if your client made a big investment remodeling their kitchen, they’ll probably feel great about it for a few months. But after a while, their surroundings become normal, and it can cause them to question whether that investment was worth it in the first place. Enter: variety and appreciation.
Spikes in happiness often lose their pleasure because we don’t take the time to fully enjoy them. By employing variety and appreciation, your client might consider enjoying a cup of coffee in front of their new bay windows or hosting dinner parties more frequently. Utilizing the space in a way that is fresh and brings gratitude will liven up your client’s outlook. It helps ground them in the present moment, allowing them to be intentional and mindful about deepening their happiness.
Mindfulness and meditation have many benefits for those seeking to deepen their satisfaction in life. These practices are designed to ground you in the present moment. Rather than going about your day on autopilot, mindfulness encourages you to do things with intention. Meditation gives you a chance to find some quiet, and reflect on your thoughts and behaviors throughout the day. When you take the time to remember your why, the small things like doing the dishes, can elicit a lot more happiness.
Barbara Fredrickson, a positive psychologist who has done her own studies of the hedonic treadmill, points to the Loving Kindness Meditation as a particularly effective tool for staying present in the moment and building deeper fulfillment.
The hedonic treadmill is an explanation of human behavior, but it doesn’t have to be a curse. Stepping off the treadmill has extraordinary benefits. The ability to sustain happiness, relish experiences, and build positive memories will only serve us well in the long run. We don’t have to constantly seek the next high. A change in mindset can pay dividends in lifelong satisfaction.
As a life coach, it’s not your job to teach your client how to be happy, and it’s not your job to make sure they stay happy. But you have the amazing opportunity to show your client the places where they might be stuck constantly chasing spikes in happiness. And once they see that, you can help them process what it might mean to hold onto happiness for longer than a moment. Happiness can be here to stay.