hedonic treadmill

Two Ways To Boosting Your Wellbeing

True happiness, said comedian Bob Monkhouse, is when you marry a person for love and later discover that they have money. We all appreciate the joke, of course, because though one side of us knows that a loving relationship provides a good chance of happiness the other thinks it would be guaranteed if that relationship made us rich as well.  Imagine it:  true love plus lots of money!  What more could you ask for!  Happiness guaranteed.  It's like my dad would say to me when I was in college (tongue in cheek, I'm sure):  "Remember, Greg, money isn't everything.  But if you happen to marry someone with money, it won't hurt. " And yet we all know - and study after study confirms it - money doesn't buy lasting happiness.  In fact, as it turns out, nothing produces lasting happiness in a one shot deal.  A sense of wellbeing, the ability to thrive with joy in life, is more complicated than that.  Behavioral economists and economic psychologists coined the contributing problem the "hedonic treadmill" - our expectations rise with our incomes, material possessions, or other positive experiences so that the happiness we seek remains just out of reach.  It's like we're caught on a treadmill, working hard, and getting nowhere.  We have to keep working just to stay in the same place.

James Montier (global equity strategist for Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein and author of the report entitled It Doesn’t Pay: Materialism and the Pursuit of Happiness) described it this way:  "In other words, we quickly get used to new things and they become part of our norm. We might get a new fast car and at first be out washing it every weekend but six months later we have become accustomed to it, the kids have scuffed up the seats in the back and the boot is full of dog hairs.  This is hedonic adaptation at work . . . material possessions are likely to be assimilated relatively fast.”  And like you and I have experienced, we're off to find the next new happiness-inducing experience.  The treadmill keeps going.

So can you do anything about this cycle?  Some experts say, "It's simple.  Just reduce your expectations so you don't experience the discrepancy between expectation and experience."  The theory is, if you have low expectations, you won't get disappointed.  Just be Zen about it all and live in the now.  Buddha's point was:  since desire is the root of all suffering, the solution is to simply get rid of desire.  Live without want and you'll never want of anything.

Certainly learning the art of managing our desires is important.  But it might not solve the whole problem.  Happiness, or a sense of thriving and being fulfilled, wellbeing, is impacted by both our expectations and experiences.  So rather than denying that reality, perhaps there is a way to shape them in ways that actually pay off.

A recent study reported in the Journal of Economic Psychology (2008) suggested two powerful ways that increase a person's wellbeing and happiness.  First, the principle authors acknowledged how many studies have shown that few events in life have a lasting impact on subjective well-being because of people’s tendency to adapt quickly; worse, those events that do have a lasting impact tend to be negative.  And second, their research showed "that while major events may not provide lasting increases in well-being, certain seemingly minor events – such as attending religious services or exercising – may do so by providing small but frequent boosts: if people engage in such behaviors with sufficient frequency, they may cumulatively experience enough boosts to attain higher well-being."

In this study they surveyed participants before they attended religious services or exercised and others as they left these activities.  Study 1 showed that people reported higher well-being after religious services, and Study 2 showed a similar effect for attending the gym or a yoga class. Equally important, frequency of engaging in these activities was a positive predictor of people’s baseline wellbeing, suggesting that these small boosts have a cumulative positive effect on well-being.

Imagine that.  You can boost your experience of wellbeing by going frequently to church (at least once a week) and to the gym or yoga class (at least several times a week).  The positive effect from frequency is cumulative - it increases your wellbeing more and more, as opposed to dropping off dramatically like after a major event or purchase is over.

"The key for long lasting changes to wellbeing is to engage in activities that provide small and frequent boosts, which in the long run will lead to improved well-being, one small step at a time."

It's interesting that oftentimes people will become involved in spiritual community on a "I'll go when I really feel like it" basis.  But if they're particularly tired one week, the motivation isn't there to get up and go, or it doesn't seem like it really matters much in the long run if they miss for awhile.  And yet, in the physical exercise and trying-to-get-in-shape arena, we all acknowledge the reality that you have to be regular and stay regular to reap the real cumulative benefits.  Which means going even when you might not feel like going.  And going regularly.

This happiness research is pretty significant - if you want your wellbeing to be boosted, you have to be frequent and regular.  Even engaging in what some might consider to be "small" activities (like church or exercise), when engaged in often, raise your wellbeing and experience of thriving.

This study certainly corresponds to numerous research done in the last 10 years about the positive overall health impact of spiritual community and regular attendance.  UC Berkeley's School of Public Health reported on a major study several years ago about the connection between faith and health.

Using data collected over a period of 31 years and involving 6,545 adults in Alameda County, non-churchgoers were found to have a 21 percent greater overall risk of dying sooner compared to those who attend religious services at least once a week.  Even after controlling for potentially confounding variables (like gender, current health, income, education, etc.), additional trends were noted, including a 66 percent greater risk of dying from respiratory diseases and a 99 percent greater risk with digestive diseases among those not attending religious services.  Regular involvement in supportive and meaningful spiritual community was linked with lower blood pressure, fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease, less depression, and a decrease in earlier death from all causes.

Study coauthor William Strawbridge of the Public Health Institute attributes the health benefits highlighted in the study to the networks within religious congregations.  "The church attendance aspect involves the interaction between people," he said. "Basically it's these relationships that are good for health," coupled with the accompanying attention to life issues and spiritual growth and development in the context of supportive community.

So, want to give a boost to your wellbeing?  It apparently won't be coming from that "retail therapy" we often feel tempted by.  It won't even be come from winning the lottery we all dream of.  But apparently it will involve not hitting the snooze button this weekend and instead making your way to a spiritual community of people who will support you on your journey.  And then hitting the gym afterward will be the icing on the cake! :)  Go figure!

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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness ... 2 out of 3 Ain't Bad!

How happy would you say you are right now or recently?  Is it possible to really tell whether or not you're happy at the moment?  Is it a quantifiable experience or feeling?  Have you discovered what it is that truly makes you happy?  Are you pursuing that? Happiness is one of those intriguing things, isn't it.  We all seem to identity different things that we feel are sources of happiness for us - loving family, nice home, good job, healthy income, meaningful relationships, the latest electronic gadgets or technology, going out to eat at a great restaurant, good health, a spa day.  The list is endless.  Does this mean it takes different things to make different people happy?

And have you noticed that often when you possess the very things you feel would make you happy the happiness tends to wear off a bit in time?  What's that all about?  Is that normal?  Does it mean that you simply misidentified what it is that genuinely contributes to your happiness?  So if you could just land on the right thing, you'd finally be happy?

We live in a culture that is almost obsessed with happiness.  In fact, it's wired into the very fabric of our Constitution as Americans - sentence two in the Declaration of Independence - our unalienable right to "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."  And boy have we Americans taken seriously our pursuit of happiness!  So you'd think that the earnestness of our pursuit would result in a truly happy existence.

And yet every poll and survey taken in recent years about American's happiness indicates the exact opposite.  Americans are less happy now that they've ever been.  Our standard of living is higher than ever.  Our income is higher.  The amount of possessions we own (including the proverbial right to own our own house) is greater. We have more opportunities accessible to us than ever.  And yet our happiness is at an all time low.  What's up?

The New Yorker printed a book review by John Lanchester in which he said, "The simplest kind of unhappiness is that caused by poverty. People living in poverty become happier if they become richer—but the effect of increased wealth cuts off at a surprisingly low figure. The British economist Richard Layard, in his stimulating book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, puts that figure at fifteen thousand dollars, and leaves little doubt that being richer does not make people happier. Americans are about twice as rich as they were in the nineteen-seventies but report not being any happier; the Japanese are six times as rich as they were in 1950 and aren’t any happier, either. Looking at the data from all over the world, it is clear that, instead of getting happier as they become better off, people get stuck on a 'hedonic treadmill': their expectations rise at the same pace as their incomes, and the happiness they seek remains constantly just out of reach."

This notion of a "hedonic treadmill" is quite helpful.  When I work out at the gym and run on the treadmill, it doesn't matter how fast a speed I set it at, how hard and fast my legs are going, whether I set it on an incline or decline, how hard my lungs are working to breathe and get sufficient oxygen to my muscles - no matter how good my health and conditioning are, I remain in the same spot - everything else in my body is working harder but I'm not getting anywhere.  The proverbial rat race.

I've experienced the hedonic treadmill numberous times in my life.  I remember some years ago living up in the Puget Sound and standing on the shore looking longingly out at the sailboats.  How I wished I could be out there!  If I could just have a boat to sail on, I'd be happy!  And then I got one.  Fun and happiness had at last arrived.

And then I was sailing up one of the channels in the Sound on a beautiful day.  And suddenly, as I looked at the beautiful houses nestled up to the shore, I caught myself thinking, "Wouldn't it be amazing to live in a house right on the edge of the water and have such beautiful, inspirational views every day!"  If I could just be in one of those homes on the Sound I would be happy!

And it hit me - the hedonic treadmill - I had achieved one of my happiness goals and was still wanting more.  My expectations had risen at the same pace as my increased possessions.  When would there ever be enough?  Could I ever outpace my happiness treadmill?  Could I ever come to the point where I actually said, "Okay, now I have everything I need to be completely and absolutely happy.  From here on out, my life will always have happiness."

The experts in the field of positive psychology (who have led the movement of the study of human happiness) talk about a "set point" that every person has when it comes to happiness.  In other words, no matter what additional input we receive or achieve that drives up our feeling of happiness, we will always return to a natural level of happiness.  And since people have different set points from each other, we can never use "the Joneses" as an accurate standard of measurement for our own experience of happiness.  The idea of having to keep up with the Joneses is a faulty paradigm (even though so many people operate their lives with this kind of comparison).

Dr. Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, described a comparison study done with lottery winners and paraplegics.  Contrary to everything you might think, “in the long run, it doesn’t much matter what happens to you,” Haidt concluded. "Though it’s better to win the lottery than to break your neck, it's not by as much as you’d think. . . . Within a year, lottery winners and paraplegics had both (on average) returned most of the way to their baseline levels of happiness.”

As the hedonic treadmill principle indicates, our internal expectations and desires tend to increase or decrease with our external circumstances so that in the end no net gain or loss is experienced.  And we end up returning to our natural set point of happiness.

So why do we spend so much time and energy trying to pursue all of the things we're being told make us happy when a true net gain of happiness never happens in the long run?  Why do we spend so much time complaining that we don't have this or that when none of those things will genuinely increase our level of happiness?

One historian, commenting on The Declaration of Independence's emphasis on the unalienable right to the "pursuit of happiness" makes a powerful observation.  The eighteenth-century understanding of the word “pursuit” was rather darker than it might seem now.  Dr. Johnson’s dictionary defined it as “the act of following with hostile intention.”  Maybe the writers of the Declaration were trying to tell us something important?  "Go ahead, pursue happiness if you want.  You are guaranteed the freedom to that pursuit.  But if you make that choice, engage with and follow happiness as a hostile foe - something you can try to conquer but very possibly might never possess.  It might conquer you.  So perhaps it be a wiser tack to declare your independence from that hostile pursuit?"

So are you and I stuck on the hedonic treadmill of happiness?  Is it possible to get off it?  Is there any hope for a life of genuine happiness?  What would that life look like if it were possible?  Stay tuned.

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