The Hedonic Treadmill

I was speaking with a certain someone this week about my old job. About how even though the paycheck would reliably come every other week, and my job was fairly low stress, I’d still finish every day in a slump, feeling like my life force had been completely drained from me.

Sharing this with her brought on a visceral reaction within me. She looked me in the eye and said, have you ever heard of the hedonic treadmill?

I felt a bolt ⚡ of clarity, as though the words made perfect sense.

It just resonated.

But, oh my goodness, I had so much more to learn.

I noodled on it all week until last night, while listening to the Joyful audiobook, the concept of hedonic adaptation came up at the tail end of the chapter on surprise.

Hedonic adaptation is our innate ability to adjust to the extreme highs and lows we might feel through experiences of grief and pleasure and other powerful emotions.

In some ways, this is a good thing. If we are having a really rough chapter, we will eventually (ideally) return to a certain baseline of happiness.

On the flip side, after a particularly novel or pleasurable experience, we may come back down a little bit to that original baseline, which might come with some disappointment.

This is why hedonic adaptation was later referred to as the hedonic treadmill.

Because it often feels like we end up right where we started.

For me, for many years, what this looked like was changing my job every year or two and getting really hyped up on the novelty of a new opportunity. Until, whomp whomp, within a few months or a year, that same feeling of restlessness would return.

Now, as I head out on the unknown path of building a business, I’m hit with daily novelty. It’s a bit of a thrill right now and I know it’s a matter of time before the hedonic treadmill beckons me.

So how do we get off that hedonic treadmill?

Funny you should ask. I did a little digging and learned that there while pleasure may be fleeting, gratification may have more staying power.

And much to my delight, gratification in this context is closely tied to flow 🌊 state.

Some key characteristics of flow state that overlap with gratification are:

  • Working on a task that challenges you, but not to a frustrating degree
  • Losing track of time (in a good way) while doing that task or activity
  • A sense of enjoyment as you put effort into something you care about

This might look like a hobby, exercise, a creative endeavor, or learning a new skill. While it may bring you pleasure, it will also bring you a deep sense of satisfaction once you are done. And likely a sense of looking forward to doing it again.

There’s a certain sense of moving towards something, versus feeling like you’re right back where you started.

For me, this is a bit of an a-ha moment. It inspires me to think in more sustainable terms as I seek out those novel experiences.

That being said, I’m not suggesting that anyone give up on pleasure! Not even a little bit.

It just might help to allow pleasure to be a little more new or unfamiliar. As in, maybe space it out a bit, or allow yourself to be surprised every once in a while. Turn up your mindfulness as you move through your day. Savor moments, tastes, sights, and sounds.

I’ve been going for walks in nature without my headphones (which might seem obvious but have you met me?) and it’s been a sensory explosion.

I wonder, as you move through your upcoming week, if you might consider some of the following:

  • How can you bring more pleasure into one of your daily routines?
  • What hobby, activity, or creative project is calling to you right now? How will you give it some attention this week?
  • Where in your life do you need to slow down?
  • Do you have an object that holds sentimental value and is perhaps hidden away? See if you can find it, and place it where you can see it, if only for this week.

Follow your bliss.

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roz duffy

roz duffy

Coach & Facilitator 🤸‍♀️ helping you tap into creative flow 🌊 and infinite possibilities ✨ Learning as I go. Fancy a note? newsletter.rozduffy.com