Why we — despite the good and bad — fall back to a baseline level of happiness

Trudging toward happiness: What is the hedonic treadmill?

Hedonic treadmill
Image source: Shutterstock
  • The concept of the hedonic treadmill is that regardless of whether good or bad things happen to us, we always return to a set point of happiness and well-being. Hence, we have to constantly work to stay at a given degree of happiness, as though we were on a treadmill.
  • Several studies exist that back up this finding, including one conducted on lottery winners and paraplegics.
  • While this may seem like a bad thing, there are advantages; in addition, it may be possible increase your baseline level of happiness through certain activities.


Try to recall a moment that made you feel awful. Maybe your car was totaled in an accident, you got fired from your job, or you went through a bad breakup. So long as these things happened a little while ago, you probably feel all right today. The same might be true for moments that made you feel fantastic: getting a promotion at work, going on a really satisfying vacation, or winning a competition. Those things might have felt good in the moment, but they didn't add up overtime, making you happier and happier.

Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill. Our lives seem to be connected to a fixed point of happiness by an elastic band — things may swing our level of happiness out in one direction or the other, but the elastic band brings us back to a hedonic "set point." The "treadmill" part of this concept comes from the idea that we must constantly work to maintain a level of happiness above and beyond this set point.

How true is this, really?

For many, the idea of the hedonic treadmill is counterintuitive. What if you were to win the lottery, or, conversely, become paralyzed? Wouldn't you feel happier or sadder overall in those cases?

To answer this question, researchers looked at those two groups specifically. Researchers interviewed both lottery winners, paraplegics, and a control group. For the lottery winners and the paraplegics, their happiness-affecting event took place from one month to a year before the interviews. They found that lottery winners were just as happy as they had been before winning the lottery, about just as happy as the controls, and expected no change in their happiness in the future. The paraplegics were slightly less happy than they had been before, but still rated their lives as happy overall, and were happier than the researchers had expected them to be given their circumstances. Importantly, the paraplegics also expected to become happier in the future, unlike the lottery winners.

Admittedly, this isn't a circumstance that many of us can relate to. But further research has been conducted on more common events. One study, for instance, looked at transitions in marital status, such as getting married, getting divorced or becoming a widow or widower. More specifically, it measured 24,000 people's happiness over several years using a survey that covered a variety of subjects, including the respondents' overall happiness for that year on a scale from 1 to 10 and their marital status.

On average, the majority of respondents returned to their baseline happiness within a few years. However, the researchers did find an exception to the hedonic treadmill effect: respondents who reacted extremely strongly to a given event did fail to return to their baseline happiness even years later.

So, are we doomed to live an entirely neutral experience? 

Not quite. First, most people have a positive hedonic set point. One study reviewed the literature on the hedonic treadmill and found that roughly three-quarters of all individuals have a generally positive set point. This finding was drawn from a diverse sample of different cultures, ranging from the Amish to the African Maasai, adding to its strength.

Second, there is, indeed, some leeway in where our hedonic set points lie. Researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky estimates that genetics are responsible for about 50 percent of where our baseline lies — unfortunately, this is entirely out of our control. Another 10 percent is attributable to circumstances largely outside of our control, like appearance or geographical location. Another 40 percent is up to the activities that we choose to engage in — fortunately, these are very much under our control.

Activities such as exercise, expressing gratitude, altruism, and taking time to savor or appreciate the good things in life have all been shown to influence short-term wellbeing very much, and there is evidence that they can nudge that hedonic set point up the scale in the long-term as well.

Additionally, the hedonic treadmill is due, in part, to processes of desensitization and adaptation — we get used to things. Because of this, variety is a powerful means of combatting the hedonic set point's inexorable tug. Persistently engaging in a variety of positive activities or varying how one performs a given positive activity can trick your stubborn brain into actually feeling good about things.

Really, the hedonic treadmill is rather Zen: nothing is permanent, which is something we should take solace in. We'll get through the next breakup or demotion, and we'll probably be okay. When it comes to becoming happier people, the research indicates that part of it is out of our control, in which case we don't need to worry about it, and part of it is, indeed, under our control — that's the stuff we should focus on.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Learn the Netflix model of high-performing teams

Erin Meyer explains the keeper test and how it can make or break a team.

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  • Instead of the 'Rank and Yank' method once used by GE, Meyer explains how Netflix managers use the 'keeper test' to determine if employees are crucial pieces of the larger team and are worth fighting to keep.
  • "An individual performance problem is a systemic problem that impacts the entire team," she says. This is a valuable lesson that could determine whether the team fails or whether an organization advances to the next level.
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