A few months ago, I was introduced to the term “hedonic treadmill” by a professor teaching the First Year Experience on happiness. Essentially, the hedonic treadmill refers to the idea that a person tends to remain more or less at one single level of happiness even after the achievement of large goals or a sudden change in their economic status. The term struck me as not only something very true of human nature but also as one that many people are unaware of or purposefully choose to ignore. I knew that dissatisfaction came from not getting what you wanted or not achieving certain goals, but I never paid much thought to the idea that, even after getting these things, people returned to a similar state of happiness, whether it was low or high. My fear, then, is that many of us tend to start expecting too much, pushing too hard or setting excessively high expectations. Under a different disguise, one that we unconsciously layer upon it called “ambition”, doing and expecting a lot sounds tempting to many of us. Deep down, however, it’s viciously unhealthy.
As a perfectionist, I have placed high goals for myself and felt happy upon achieving them, but always searched for something bigger and more difficult that I needed to achieve. For the longest time, it didn’t register in my mind that people around me, perfectionists and non-perfectionists alike, tended to return to the same happiness level they had before. While these notions shouldn’t deter anyone from setting high goals and pursuing them, they ought to make us more aware of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.
The myth of King Midas and his golden touch teaches children that great wealth does not equal happiness, but how true do we actually stay to that belief as adults? And by wealth, I don’t just mean the piles of money we fantasize (or, in some cases, actually have) sitting in our bank accounts. I’m talking about that new iPhone, the computer you think you need, the jeans that seem just out of your budget. The list doesn’t stop there. As far as the hedonic treadmill goes, we’re also talking about things that may have a different or higher intellectual value. Personally, that’s where the idea of accumulating material wealth and then quickly yearning for more starts to get to me. I have piles of books that I haven’t read yet (but will soon, I promise!) And although things of this nature are a different story, and are good to accumulate, in a sense. I like the idea of having these great books not just for myself but also to share with other people. Generosity is a much-needed, and often overlooked, virtue. But we shouldn’t rely on the idea that possessing a nice computer and phone and books will bring us happiness, even when we love what they bring us. While they are often means of accessing happiness, so to speak, we need to recognize them as exactly that: the means.
In bringing up these issues, I don’t intend to deter anyone’s ambition or to tell any person that they shouldn’t set high goals for themselves. On the contrary: We should hope for great things and set up plans to achieve them. It is in my best intentions, however, not to aim for the material, which is what we often refer to when we think of that word “things.” While it is great, I’ll admit, to have a nice computer, a pretty new phone and piles of books in my dorm room and at home, my true happiness lies in the experiences I’ve accumulated over time, the people I’ve met and the inner peace I have cultivated through years of struggle. I hope that others feel similarly about their own lives.