We've all been there, that moment when we set our sights on an elusive goal, even the simplest objective like cleaning a room or finishing the last mile of a run fills us with the thrill of another perspective accomplishment. But what happens after? In the days that follow do we really feel happier having completed another task on life's endless to-do list? Maybe for a few hours, a few days, if we're lucky the afterglow might last a week or two. Pretty soon though, you're back where you started searching for the next project.
This is the Hedonic Treadmill, also called the Set-point Theory. It describes how, despite vacillations from day-to-day experiences, an individual's level of happiness is relatively stable throughout life. This predetermined baseline of happiness, by the way, is said to be significantly influenced by genetics and health. Most events, then, only temporarily alter your level of happiness. Say you get a raise at work, you might be ecstatic the first day or week but in a year that wage will the "norm" for you, nothing to be shocked or happy about. This theory was spelled out in 1971 by Brickman and Campbell in their scientific paper, "Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society."
So if the constant pursuit of happiness just brings us back where we started, how do we break our cycle? Is there a real way to increase our baseline happiness? That's quite a sensitive and subjective topic. Some people will argue that having children or getting married certainly must increase happiness but sadly, most studies show that the opposite is true. After the initial "honeymoon effect" average happiness not only doesn't increase but decreases over time. Even in studies biased towards helping marriage look positive failed to do so!
The vast majority of cases show that, over time, individuals almost always return to their baseline happiness level. The good news is there might be ways to "reset" this default level. But first, it's necessary to see how scientists and psychologists have defined the two significant forms of happiness;
Hedonic Happiness - Well-being derived from simple pleasures in the short term, often associated with sensation-seeking behaviors such as substance use and obtaining material wealth/goods and physical pleasure.
Eudaimonic Happiness - Well-being derived from self-development, contributions to society, and finding meaning/purpose in life
As one might guess, many studies suggest that "pursuing pleasure directly (hedonic happiness)is considered futile because most contributions to well-being come from pursuing meaningful endeavors for their own sake."
In other words, although hedonic happiness has a role in life, psychological well-being has more to do with eudaimonic sources of happiness; self-realization, feelings of competence, self-acceptance, and personal growth. Engaging in meaningful actions and developing one's strengths are some of the best chances for increasing your happiness and contentment in life.
This article, needless to say, required quite a bit of reading, studying and consideration. Happiness is a very strange and frustratingly evasive goal. What I can say from my struggles/progress with disordered thinking is this: happiness, to me, is best found when you learn to push yourself not out of self-hatred but with the knowledge that you can do whatever you put your mind to. Good luck.
"Satisfaction lies in the effort, not the attainment, full effort is full victory"
(Yeah, how cliche, sorry)