How the Hedonic Treadmill Will Steal Your Money and Your Happiness

Do you remember when you were a teenager and wanted nothing more than this phone? It was cool and sleek and had a camera, plus two screens! Everyone wanted this phone. If you had this phone in 2004, you were the hippest kid in the classroom. And if you didn’t, you were certain that if only you had that phone, you would be truly happy.

Then, maybe Christmas rolled around and you got the phone. It was just as amazing as you thought it would be. Then Christmas break ended, you took your phone to school, and everyone oohed and ahhed over it around the lunch table. But by Spring Break, it was just a part of your life. You used it to text your friends and call your mom to pick you up, but you didn’t oogle at it any more. It was a tool.

Fast forward to 2015. No one wants this phone. The screen is small, and it’s not touch-screen. You can’t get on Facebook and Google Maps and Spotify. Now, a smartphone is the presumed minimum requirement. They’re old enough that they’re not seen as “cool” anymore either – they’re just a tool.

That’s the hedonic treadmill. Something seems amazing, like Razr, then you get it and pretty quickly settle back to your personal average happiness level. You get used to it and it’s not exciting anymore. So you want something else new and amazing.

That’s where it gets you. You constantly upgrade to new cars, fancier vacations, nicer clothes, thinking that your life will be better when your things are better. And of course, these things are expensive, and a few months after buying them you don’t get any joy from them anymore.

Sure, there is a base level of material goods we need to be comfortable in our lives – a warm roof over your head will save you a lot of worry, wearing clothes that aren’t in tatters will make you more confident and respected, being able to afford groceries means you avoid a lot of stress about where your next meal will come from. Beyond that though – a nicer, fancier apartment won’t make you any happier than the perfectly serviceable one you already have. Buying a latte every day won’t make you any happier than getting one once a week or so.

Like on any treadmill, the view never changes. True contentment doesn’t come from keeping up with the latest and greatest. You need to (cheesy metaphor alert!) get off the fancy treadmill in the fancy gym and go for a run outside, where you can appreciate the fresh air and the view instead of the way-more-in-shape lady running next to you.

The first step to this is gratitude. Wanting what you have, instead of what other people have. Sometimes I literally sit in my apartment (I did a blog post a while ago that was an “apartment tour,” it’s here) and look around and remember to appreciate things, like my wood floors and original art from my friends and the sheer fact that I have a place of my own.

There are things that have been proven to actually increase happiness. Those are things like exercise, being outside, strong relationships, meditation/journaling, learning new things and getting enough sleep. Amazingly enough, they’re all free!

Remember, you are what you do, not what you have.


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