The Hedonic Treadmill

In 2010 the British Government started to measure happiness, they found that the average British person is 7.4/10 happy, which seems fairly happy to me. I wonder whether Mr Cameron is tempted to use this figure along the lines of

most British people are quite happy with their lives, and therefore we must be doing something right. Vote for us at the next election and you will continue to be fairly happy.

No, of course he wouldn’t be stupid enough (or at least Lynton Crosby won’t be stupid enough) to make such spurious claims when he would quickly run into problems of definition, measurement and most importantly causation. It would be facile, and I can’t believe that the UK Conservative Party would be ignorant enough to make such an error.

Definition and Measurement

Happiness is much easier to experience than it is to define, the ONS defines it as “Life Satisfaction”, and “Well Being”, which it states “ includes headline indicators in areas such as health, relationships, job satisfaction, economic security, education, environmental conditions and measures of ‘personal well-being’ (individuals’ assessment of their own well-being).”. See more here.

Mmm, after reading that definition I’m not feeling very happy, and certainly a long way from anything resembling ecstasy. It’s a grim task that social scientists set themselves – the reduction of the human experience to measurable units. But, such grubby endeavours are the burden of the human empiricist, just saying “it’s so complex and beautiful we just can’t measure it” won’t help us to further understand hedonic-treadmillit.

The Hedonic Treadmill.

However, if a government did claim to have had a tangible effect on the happiness of the people I very much doubt that psychological research could support / validate such a claim. Campbell & Brickman (1971) demonstrated that human satisfaction levels tend to revert back to a norm regardless of material circumstances, or even life events. After extraordinarily happy, or sad, events human satisfaction levels quickly return to their normal levels. They called this ‘The Hedonic Treadmill’, showing that happiness was fairly independent of wealth, and external intervention.

The analogies cited here are often of the sort:

  • The comfort provided by entering a warm room after being in the cold outdoors soon reverts to feeling like a normal temperature.

  • A smell which is initially appealing, soon becomes difficult to detect as becomes a background smell.

The apparent inference of the Hedonic Treadmill may initially seem abhorrent : “poverty is not really a problem, the poor would be no better off if they were rich”. However, this is not really the inference in terms of psychological functioning, for which we need to dig a little deeper…,

The Satisfaction Treadmill.

From the Hedonic Treadmill researchers developed the theory of the Satisfaction Treadmill, this is the idea that as we start to increase our material circumstances we start to derive the same satisfaction as we did in our formerly reduced circumstances. The example given by Frederick 2007 explains this well

imagine that we are living in an apartment overlooking a carpark, and aspire to live in an oceanfront apartment. Eventually we achieve the means to move to the apartment overlooking the sea. Initially we will derive greater satisfaction from the new improved view. However, after a period of time we will derive no greater satisfaction from the crashing waves and wheeling gulls than we did formerly from the view of the carpark.

The implications of the Hedonic & Satisfaction treadmills becomes immediately clear in a highly materialistic society in which we may judge ourselves by our ability to consume. In this situation we may find ourselves in an ever-increasing spiral of consumption just to maintain our happiness levels. If our material wealth falls then happiness could crash.

Whilst the UK Govt’s attempt to measure happiness may be admirable, I wonder whether they’ve asked how they may improve happiness beyond the conventional economic indicators of material circumstances.

Whether our action is wholesome or unwholesome depends on whether that action or deed arises from a disciplined or undisciplined state of mind. It is felt that a disciplined mind leads to happiness and an undisciplined mind leads to suffering, and in fact it is said that bringing about discipline within one’s mind is the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.”

Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness

His Holiness Dalai Lama XIV teaches us that true happiness can only be found from within. True happiness is found in love, compassion, care and commitment to others. It comes from helping others rather than helping ourselves. This belief is supported by a wealth of evidence from psychological research. I wonder whether Mr Cameron and the UK Govt have considered this as they measure the happiness of the UK people.

Brickman, P., & Campbell, D. (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. In M. H. Apley (Ed.), Adaptation-level theory: A symposium (pp. 287–302). New York: Academic Press.

Frederick, S., & Loewenstein, G. (1999). Hedonic adaptation. In D. Kahneman, E. Diener, & N. Schwartz (Eds.), Well-being: The foundations of hedonic psychology (pp. 302–329). New York: Russell Sage.

Frederick, S. (2007) Hedonic Treadmill. in Yale School of Management Publication.

Brickman & Campbell 1971

Brickman, Coates & Janoff Bullman 1978



About danieltrump

breathing and sensing human. Learning to observe, learning to write, exploring ideas and thinking.


  1. This is so on point! The united nations is observing the international day of happiness next month. I think this would be great time to explore this concept of happiness further.

  2. I read an interesting article in a new magazine I couldn’t resist subscribing to called Live Happy. The article, “The New Pursuit of Happiness” compares Hedonia, “a fast-food version of happiness…in-the-moment pleasure with no limits or rules…self-gratifying, self-serving,” with Eudaimonia, which is “centered on fulfilling our potential…driven by virtue and a higher purpose: service to others.” It’s “achieved…when we live in accordance with our truest self.”

    While I still struggle to pronounce the latter, that type of happiness is what I strive to achieve here and out in the world. How I came to find hidden blessings in a broken marriage and contentious divorce, in daily pain debilitating, physical, and emotional, I don’t know, but thank goodness I did. I thought too little of myself most of my life to wallow in hedonistic pleasures, though I’ve blindly waded in it off and on. And there’s nothing wrong with having fun for the hell of it, as the article states. If your diet consists solely on that fuel, however, you lose yourself, if you had an idea of who you were to begin with.

    I didn’t have fun for the hell of it; I took great care in treating myself badly, which I feel could be an offshoot or type of hedonic behavior. Severe depression is selfishness to the extreme; a living nightmare of reveling in your worthlessness, when, at least for me, I wanted to give of myself in a positive way, find my purpose, meaning for living. When “effortful, intentional activities” are repeated, the happiness lingers and accumulates, “spilling over into the next day,” into what they call a “happiness hangover.” Isn’t that wonderful? I feel that more and more as my body’s pains fade. I can do even more for others. And I do feel almost drunk with joy at the prospect.

    • You have a wonderful use of words, “I took great care in treating myself badly” is perfectly phrased, and it sums up a whole approach to etiology of depression, and the consequent psychotherapy.
      Thank you for sharing so candidly your experiences, and your realisations of the nature of happiness. I like the idea of a happiness hangover coming from altruistic behaviours. There’s so much to explore in this area, and I think that the growth of positive psychology is evidence that more people are increasingly looking beyond immediate gratification. I wonder what role creativity has in influencing happiness ?
      Thanks for reading and commenting, the autonomy to direct our time is both a great freedom and influences happiness. As such I am most grateful that you directed your time here.

      • Thank you. I tinkered all day with my “SOS” post. Wondered if you’d let me know what you think of it. Good, bad, or indifferent–it’s all helpful. If/when you’ve time or inclination…

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