Sunday, September 12, 2010

Overcoming the Hedonic Treadmill

"The secret of contentment is knowing how to enjoy what you have.”
Lin Yutang

There is a tendency in our lives to adapt to the prevailing conditions and for things, no matter how distorted or extreme to become ‘normal’ before long. Research has found that people who have either experienced incredibly positive events such as winning the lottery, and people who have experienced extremely negative events such as becoming blind or quadriplegic, have an initial positive or negative response respectively, then within less than a year largely revert to their normal levels of happiness. The joy and sadness of good and bad events tends to fade with time.

On the Hedonic Treadmill

In the field of Positive Psychology, this effect is called the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’ and it’s particularly germane to the subject of greed and wealth. Research on the hedonic treadmill has shown that as a person makes more money, their expectations and desires typically rise, resulting in no permanent gain in happiness.

Part of the process of greeding is the belief that the satiation of a desire will lead to ongoing positive feelings and experiences. But, as the research on the hedonic treadmill suggests, the initial positive response to satiating your desires will be fleeting. Before long, your feelings and levels of happiness will return to the norm, leaving you back on the treadmill. You’ll then need to increase your wants and desires and continue questing for more.

Unless you do something differently, over time you’ll end up stuck on this tiresome hedonic treadmill of greed and all it will ultimately achieve is leaving you feeling no better than before and with a constant unsatisfied need for more and more. As you can imagine, this is not particularly life enhancing... 

Shift your focus

The hedonic treadmill effect is particularly applicable to happiness based on pleasure.

Remember, research in Positive Psychology has shown there are three components to a happy life – pleasure, engagement and meaning. The antidote to the hedonic treadmill is to shift your focus from pleasure to a greater focus on engagement and meaning. By living a life filled with purpose and meaning and focusing on helping others you’ll experience a life that is deeply satisfying and doesn’t rely on an ongoing greed for pleasure and surface enjoyment.

Also, stop basing happiness on external objects and possessions. Instead, look to your own inner resources and competencies to generate joy and happiness in your life and the life of others. Watch out for patterns of greeding and hedonic treadmill effects in your life, and avoid them as the true life denying enemies they really are.

Success Strategy – Loving Kindness Meditation

Research by Positive Psychologist Dr. Barbara Fredrickson has shown that the practice of the Buddhist technique of Loving Kindness Meditation can mitigate the effects of the hedonic treadmill. When practiced for as little as an hour per week, Loving Kindness Meditation can enhance positive emotions and buffer against negative emotions such as greed, fear and envy.

Loving Kindness Meditation is a meditational practice in which you send out thoughts and feelings of love, kindness and well-being to all sentient beings. It involves 4 phases, with each phase lasting approximately 5 minutes. The meditation can be done as a visualisation in which you imagine and feel a sphere of love and light around yourself and then radiate it out from yourself. It can also be done as a verbal exercise in which you repeat phrases or mantras while remembering and recalling positive memories of love and kindness.

1. The practice begins by focussing on developing a loving acceptance of your self. This is the first phase. Fill yourself with thoughts, feelings and images of love, caring and acceptance. Repeat words like “I love and care for myself. I deserve happiness, health and love.” Visualise yourself filled with a radiant ball of love centered round your heart and radiating throughout your body and your life. Do this for 5 minutes.

2. The second phase involves meditating on loving kindness for someone you already care about and love. This could be a close friend, a parent, a lover, a mentor, teacher or benefactor. Concentrate on sending them feelings and messages of loving kindness. Visualise the light of your loving kindness and compassion spreading from your heart out to them, surrounding and filling them and their life.

3. In the next phase, you shift your visualisation and meditation to someone you are neutral to, perhaps a stranger or an acquaintance. Do this for 5 minutes also, before moving on to phase 4.

4. The final phase is more challenging. In this phase you focus on sending loving kindness to people that you dislike or who have been difficult or hostile towards you. Feel and imagine enveloping them in compassion, forgiveness and kindness. You can also spread your thoughts of loving kindness out to all beings in the world, encompassing all sentient creatures, all people.

True Inner Wealth

You will find that this meditation exercise feels fantastic and has a lasting effect that stays with you for many, many hours. Indeed, Dr. Fredrickson’s research shows that the more you practice the meditation the longer the effect lasts and spreads across the contexts of your life, generating emotional and psychological resources that support ongoing happiness and success. Now that is true life enhancing inner wealth!

peace and life enhancing thoughts,

And here is Dr Fredrickson's book on her research for those who want to learn more:

Positivity: Groundbreaking Research to Release Your Inner Optimist and Thrive


  1. Excellent article and some provocative ideas.

  2. A very thought-provoking post, Grant! I had never heard of the Hedonic Treadmill but, of course, had seen it in action. I have always tried to practice "The secret of contentment is knowing how to enjoy what you have.”--Lin Yutang, thus avoiding that ugly, life-draining cycle of get more/have more/want more. I love how you put it all into words.

  3. Hi, thanks for the positive and supportive feedback. I truly appreciate it, and I'm glad my posts provoke life enhancing thoughts :-) as my outcome with this blog is to share and add value to people's lives.

    best wishes,


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