Slavery to Things and the Hedonic Treadmill

Published:  09/29/2023

Slavery to Things and the Hedonic Treadmill
There is no objective level of happiness that results from a given material state of being. What do I mean by that?

Humans have a remarkable capacity to endure and normalize both pain and pleasure. Have you ever thought about how anyone could have been happy in the distant past when they had so many hardships and so few material comforts compared to today? Have you ever thought about how people in less fortunate countries can be happier than many of the people in the US or Europe despite the differences in wealth?


The answer is that we adapt to our circumstances. Even dramatic changes in our situation eventually fade into the backdrop of our lives. When we experience something awful, it feels terrible at first, but in time, it becomes our new normal. Likewise, when something great happens, our level of happiness spikes initially, but the effect dissipates as the new becomes commonplace.
Researchers have found this to be the case even for people that win the lottery and for those that have had an accident that disables them. Typically, the person feels a dramatic initial boost (or loss) of happiness, but over time, the person’s level of happiness returns to its previous baseline level.

How can you use this information? Firstly, try to keep it in mind when something out of your control happens that makes you unhappy. The pain of that experience will likely lessen over time. For example, if your favorite pet dies, you will feel very unhappy for a time, but eventually, the pain will fade.
On the flip side, a dramatic positive change in your material lifestyle won’t likely bring meaningful long-term changes to your overall level of happiness. However, it is possible that some gains in material wealth can provide protection from negative events that would otherwise harm your happiness.

Let me give you two scenarios. In the first, suppose you drive an ugly, unreliable car and you are given a fun new car that is reliable, you will likely receive a long-term boost in your overall happiness. The boost in your long-term happiness will not be because the new car is so fun, it will be because by being more reliable, the new car will save you from having to worry about being stranded. Being stranded causes an acute spike in unhappiness, and that would have occurred every time your old car broke down. The new car saves you from all that happiness destroying stress.  

Next, imagine that you have a perfectly safe and reliable car. You don’t think of it as your dream car, but it is perfectly useful as a means of transportation. Instead of keeping the reliable safe car, you decide to trade it in for something fun/sexy. This new car is reliable, but no more reliable than the old one. It is fun at first. However, in a few weeks or months, driving this new car eventually feels a lot like driving the old car. It is still primarily a tool to take you reliably from point A to point B. The new car is a lot more expensive than the old car, and as a result you have less money for travel, less money to invest, and you must work a little more each month to pay for it. In this second scenario, you haven’t improved your long-term happiness, but you have possibly harmed your overall happiness due to the costs of owning the new car.        

It’s natural to want nice things. It’s natural to want to own everything you see that appeals to you but try to remember that nearly all blessings come with a curse. Every possession is also a burden.

When I was around 21 years old, I had no money (as a poor college kid putting myself through school), and I needed a new car. I was offered a loan to buy any car I wanted, but the person offering me the money knew of a car with only 8,000 miles on it that I could buy. That car was boring to me. I wanted something sexier. I found another car for the same money, except it had 99,000 miles on it. I bought the high mileage car I preferred over the low mileage boring option.

It turned out to be the worst car purchase I have ever made.  I don’t want to discuss the poor decision making that preceded the purchase. I will write about that in another post. The thing that I want to talk about is how quickly the excitement and novelty of owning the “sexy” car wore off. Within a short period of time, driving that car was not noticeably different from driving my previous car. Like any other car, it got me from point A to point B. I very quickly got used to driving the new car, so in hindsight, it didn’t make me any happier. In fact, since the car also ended up being very unreliable, it made me acutely unhappy many days. The fact that it was a completely unreliable aside, I learned that the sexier car had no power to bring me a lasting improvement in my happiness (a reliable car would have protected me from those days of misery when the sexy car broke down though.)
Thinking further back to when I was a kid, I can remember new toys quickly becoming less interesting in a similar way. I can remember being super excited to get home from school to play with a new toy for about four days only. After about four days, the novelty would wear off. The never-ending need for new material things to feel a fleeting spike in mood is often referred to as a hedonic treadmill.

Another childhood memory of mine has lessons in it about the positive effects of acquiring new things. I noticed that when given several new things at once (on my birthday for example), I would grow tired of everything more quickly than I would have normally. It was as if I couldn’t sustain the novelty provided by several things at once for as long as I could have if they were given to me one at a time with space between each gift. It was as if my pleasure receptors could only be ramped up so high by receiving something new, and after one or two things, the effect of anymore new things was diminished. This hit of pleasure from getting something new is more like an off on switch. Once you’ve done enough to ignite the pleasurable feeling, adding more doesn’t give you a dramatic increase in pleasure. It’s the law of diminishing returns at work. A new toy, new car, new item of clothing, … will bring you a little rush of happiness, but you will need to space out your acquisitions if you want to derive the maximum amount of pleasure from those things.

Money spent on novel experiences can boost your overall happiness more than buying new things.
Even following the strategy of spacing out purchases, the boost in happiness you get from new items will eventually fade (rather quickly in fact.) For this reason, try not to look for happiness in new things. New experiences however can provide a long-term boost to your happiness. Research shows that traveling for example pays a long-term happiness dividend. You enjoy the initial trip, but you also benefit from reliving the trip whenever you look back on the experience. Fill your life with new and pleasurable experiences before filling it with things. Things you own need to be stored, cleaned, maintained, …. You don’t pay for things once; you continue to pay for them. Memories are near free to maintain. They can often be had cheaply, and they will be a source of joy as you age.