The ‘hedonic treadmill’ is a term that describes one aspect of the human condition. Essentially, it paints a portrait of what is believed by many to be almost the ‘default state’ of happiness for most of us.
That default state meanwhile can be summed up as being ‘never quite happy’. The hedonic treadmill is what keeps driving us forward while preventing us from giving up – it’s the fine line that most of us walk between being content and slightly uncomfortable. Proponents of the idea state that we will never be quite ‘perfectly happy’ but at the same time we’ll probably never be completely distraught either.
Evidence for the Hedonic Treadmill
So does the hedonic treadmill actually exist? Right now you likely have a gut feeling already as to whether or not this is an accurate description of your ‘default mental state’. Do you feel as though you’re never quite content? If you won the lottery tomorrow, do you feel as though you would be completely happy then?
According to some studies we do indeed have a kind of ‘baseline’ happiness that we fall back on. In one study, the happiness of participants was tested before and after life changing events. Some participants would lose a limb and others would win the lottery. What was found, was that after a couple of years both groups would return to a similar level of happiness that they had experienced prior to the event.
From an evolutionary perspective it’s also easy to see why something like the hedonic treadmill might exist. If we were to become completely miserable then this of course would be very bad for us as it might lead us to give up completely. On the other hand, if we were completely content we would have no motivation to keep striving to make life better. Thus being in a state of ‘slight discontent’ is actually the most evolutionarily effective.
Of course there are also criticisms of the theory however. Certainly not everyone is at the same level of happiness and most of us will experience considerable fluctuation throughout our lives.
So the jury is still out on whether such a thing really exists. Nevertheless, it does put forward some interesting points and it’s easy to see why we might not ever actually want to be ‘completely happy’. Whether you find that comforting or not is likely to depend very much on your point of view…