The Hedonic Threadmill

In the scientific study of happiness, a particularly interesting finding is that people quickly adjust to new-gained wealth – even major increases in income or life quality have only a passing effect on your basic happiness level. Lottery winners are in heaven for a month or two, and then it’s back to feeling averagely happy (or unhappy) again.

This universal phenomenon is called the hedonic threadmill. The hunt for happiness is a futile endeavour, at least if the goal is to become happy. We think that happiness will be ours when we have a private jet plane, but once we get it, the goalposts move once again, and we realise that true happiness comes only when we have two personal jet planes. And so on.

Interestingly, according to Daniel Nettle’s book Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, there is a sound evolutionary explanation for this. Our drive for happiness is nature’s way of keeping us striving to improve our lives. If it was easy to become happy, or if the effect was permanent, we would still be sitting in our caves, supremely happy because, hey, we have a cave to sit in. No reason to strive for higher things when you have a nice cave to sit in. No bears in it, too. Being unhappy, however, is a call for action: it makes us try to improve things. The human propensity to continually search for more happiness is nature’s way of keeping us on our toes, ever looking for ways to do better.

On a side note, Denmark – a puny yet curiously wonderful nation of which I am a proud member – has recently been found to be the happiest country in the world. It must be all those girls biking around in summer dresses.

See my review of Nettle’s book on happiness.

Categories: Fragments of knowledge

Author:Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg

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