Hedonic treadmill

the hedonic hamster wheelI’m just about to return a book to the library, something I read a while back and have been meaning to post about for centuries. In their article “Hedonic Relativism and planning the good society**,” Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell give a name to the ongoing state of happiness that we all experience. Despite the fact that external forces are constantly changing our life goals, happiness for most people is a relatively constant state. Regardless of how good things get, we’ll always be about the same level of happy; this they call the hedonic treadmill.

Psychology researchers have observed this phenomenon in a myriad of different situations: lottery winners, tenure achievers, recently handicapped, etc. In all of these situations, despite a massive shift in standard of living or achievement of major life goals, after a short period of time the life-satisfaction levels return to normal.

If this is what we can expect from our own psychology, how does hedonic relevatism affect the way we choose to live our lives? Brickman and Campbell look at this question from a societal level, and suggest that there is an optimal setup for making every member of our culture as happy as possible. You have to give them credit, it was the 70’s and socialism was still a form of utopia. But as far as I can tell, the only way to keep yourself on an increasing scale of happiness is to achieve some small goals on a daily basis, not putting too much emphasis on achieving one over another.

So why am I writing this damned Ph.D.?!

** Brickman, Philip, & Campbell, Donald. (1977). �Hedonic relativism and planning the good society.� In M.H. Appley (Ed.), Social comparison processes: Theoretical and empirical perspectives. New York: Wiley/Halsted.

9 thoughts on “Hedonic treadmill

  1. As the Dean of the Joint Popes of the New Faith University, I hereby award you an honorary doctorate for this post.

    Your Ph.D is now completed.

  2. YES!! YES!! YES!! I’m done! Wooooooooooooooo… ! [running around in circles] Wooooooooooooooo… ! [sits down] Yay. I’m so.. utterly.. umm.. happy. Yes, I’m happy. Nope. Worn off. Miserable again.

  3. You are writing this thesis because this is your life. You are blessed. Be true to your nature and write this god damn thing like there is no tomorrow. You will be happy with a great thesis, you will not be happy without a great thesis.

  4. This is actually the thesis of Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, Chris’s father). In his studies, the people who were consistently the happiest were the autotelic — those being very intentional about finding and setting new goals for themselves every day.

    Great book. Also has a funny passage about Chris, in case you’re curious…

  5. Your Ph.D is a process, requiring daily planning, approaching and retreating from your set goals. Your dissertation, as such, is only one small process/outcome. We are all masochists, in our own way, choosing the harder path. to stretch and challenge our abilities in order to maintain some level of satisfaction.

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