Running on the Happiness Hamster Wheel

By Georgina Lavan 


Source: Like Success

We are all at some point in our lives searching for the keys to happiness. It is instilled in us to strive to do our best in school, work, our friendships and relationships. What we often find to be challenging is working out the difference between what we believe will make us happy, and what actually does make us happy. When these two are muddled, we find ourselves chasing that pot of gold at the never ending rainbow. This is also known as the Hedonic Treadmill.

The Hedonic Treadmill refers to “the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes” (Simple Economist, 2013). These spikes in emotions can occur due to life events, relationships, consumer goods, and achieving life goals.

The theory works by each of us having what is referred to as a stable level of happiness. This level does not always mean that it sits halfway between joy and sadness. Some people, due to environmental factors, may have a stable level that sits above or below the midpoint of the two emotions. Every time a good or bad event occurs, we begin to ride the rollercoaster of emotions. Depending on the intensity of the emotion, we may sit above or below our stable level for short or long periods of time. The bottom line is, with time, we will eventually come back to our stable level of happiness. During the extremely happy times, we hold onto that feeling for as long as possible, and in the extremely sad times, we strive to feel “normal” again.


 The Hedonic Treadmill

Source: Positive Psychology Program

Let’s use Rover as an example to explain further. Rover is a Golden Labrador puppy you’ve received for Christmas (he’s got a cute red bow around his neck – just for a visual effect).


Source: Pinterest

When you first get him, you’re obsessed! You’re taking Rover everywhere, teaching him tricks, calling shotgun on playing fetch and taking him for walks. Then, Rover starts chewing up your favourite sneakers, or going to the bathroom in the house, and the novelty of Rover is starting to wear off. With time, Rover is just another member of the household. You will always love Rover unconditionally, but the excitement of cleaning up his mess and taking him to the vet is no longer the novelty it once was.

Even in extreme cases, one is found to return to a stable level of happiness. A study carried out by Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman (1987) looked into two groups of participants who experienced opposing levels of happiness – one group being lottery winners, the other being disabled participants who had been involved in accidents resulting in paralysis. Over the course of the research, both groups, who originally experienced extreme emotions due to their circumstances, eventually returned to a stable level of happiness.

In a world where we’ve evolved into demanding things almost immediately, and are based on material goods, where can we go wrong with measuring our happiness? Well first off, our expectations are higher due to everything being more accessible in this technology driven world. This means that we have the tendency to get disappointed when things don’t go our way almost immediate. We want promotions and pay rises quicker, and turnover of goods faster. We can’t enjoy the excitement of the iPhone 7 for long before the 10th anniversary model comes out later this year.

Our social media also creates an expectation of how happiness is measured by promoting our lives online. Whether it’s your friends showing off their latest car, or P.Diddy in his Bentley, we then compare our dinged up car (which has done wonders with getting us from point A to point B) to the spinning rims, matte paint job and velvet upholstery of a vehicle that really, is not people friendly, requires 24 hour security so no one dents it, and overall, is much more stressful to maintain then your Jelly Bean car parked in the garage.

So how can we learn to be more grounded and not spend so much time living on this emotional rollercoaster? Positive psychology lecturer Tal Ben-Shahar (he teaches “the most popular course” at Harvard University) promotes the following key tips to happiness that don’t have to revolve around keeping up with the Jones’ (or Kardashian’s, whichever you relate to):

  1. Give yourself permission to be human. When we accept emotions — such as fear, sadness, or anxiety — as natural, we are more likely to overcome them. Rejecting our emotions, positive or negative, leads to frustration and unhappiness.
  2. Happiness lies at the intersection between pleasure and meaning. Whether at work or at home, the goal is to engage in activities that are both personally significant and enjoyable. When this is not feasible, make sure you have happiness boosters, moments throughout the week that provide you with both pleasure and meaning.
  3. Keep in mind that happiness is mostly dependent on our state of mind, not on our status or the state of our bank account. Barring extreme circumstances, our level of wellbeing is determined by what we choose to focus on (the full or the empty part of the glass) and by our interpretation of external events. For example, do we view failure as catastrophic, or do we see it as a learning opportunity?
  4. Simplify! We are, generally, too busy, trying to squeeze in more and more activities into less and less time. Quantity influences quality, and we compromise on our happiness by trying to do too much.
  5. Remember the mind-body connection. What we do — or don’t do — with our bodies influences our mind. Regular exercise, adequate sleep, and healthy eating habits lead to both physical and mental health.
  6. Express gratitude, whenever possible. We too often take our lives for granted. Learn to appreciate and savour the wonderful things in life, from people to food, from nature to a smile.

We want to know, what makes you truly happy?


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