Are you on the hedonic treadmill?

Unpacking the theory that we each have a set level of happiness

Money can’t buy happiness, we’re told, but that doesn’t stop most of us from trying. So often we think, “If I could just make a little more money, I’d be so much happier.” Nor can a washboard stomach. But soon after getting that promotion or unearthing those abs, most people return to a relatively stationary level of happiness, their happiness “set point.”

It's a theory known as the hedonic treadmill:Positive life events trigger a temporary spike in happiness; negative life events trigger a drop—but soon we return to the same initial starting point. We constantly fixate on what we don’t have, but after we finally get it, we find we are no happier than before, and soon desire something else. It’s like running on a treadmill—no matter how fast you run, you end up in the same place.

Lottery winners offer a prime example. Research has shown that lottery winners take less satisfaction in everyday events than non-lottery winners and, in general, were no happier than those who hadn’t won the lottery. Similarly, those who think moving somewhere warm will make them happier are likely mistaken: While Midwesterners perceived Californians to be happier, overall life satisfaction was found to be the same in both places. Plus, notoriously cold countries Denmark and Switzerland ranked #1 and #2 in a list of the world’s happiest countries, according to this year’s World Happiness Report.

So can we get off the hedonic treadmill? Recent research challenges the notion that there is a neutral, pre-defined happiness set point. The study suggests there are multiple set points, such as a life satisfaction set point and a subjective well-being set point. A more accurate way to describe our happiness set point would be to see it as a range that varies over time and can be changed.

For most of us, what matters most are our priorities—how we spend our time and money is the best guide to how happy we will be. Going on a group run, for example, instead of a solo one can be a small yet effective way to nourish happiness.

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, believes that most people cannot accurately predict what will make them happy. But research suggests that good relationships and positive experiences, such as family vacations, are worth prioritizing over money and possessions. As Gilbert points out, “You’ll ‘always have Paris’” — and that’s exactly what Bogart meant when he said it to Ingrid Bergman. But will you always have a washing machine? No.”

So go ahead—book that epic beach vacation.