Rainbow in Iceland

Running on Treadmills, Chasing After Rainbows

If you were anything like me when growing up, you probably went looking for the end of the rainbow at some point. Yes, you did pick up the addendum of it only being a myth after hearing about the pot of gold, not to mention the fact that it’s quite difficult to find the end of the rainbow. But, still, no smoke without fire and nobody else probably bothered to try to find all that gold, because they readily dismissed it as fairy tales. But you knew better, and off you went when the rainbow showed its colours.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and most of us would be remiss to admit that we went chasing rainbows with the hoping unearthing treasure. Now, we think, we are older and know much more about the world, and wouldn’t even contemplate wasting our precious time chasing a mirage, a mere pipe dream. Despite all the wisdom we’ve acquired through the years, so many of us never stop and take a step back, and realise that the difference between our current selves and the young version chasing rainbows is negligent. The only real difference is that now that we are grownups, we don’t put drop our hopeless dreams when the next distraction comes along, but instead we dedicate our entire life in pursuit of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, which none of us will ever find.

The Hedonic Treadmill

Even if you don’t know the concept by name, I am confident that you will be intimately familiar with what it describes. Remember back to a time when you had less, and you told yourself that if you just got that one pay bump you would be able to afford all you need, and you could finally be happy and content. Or once you were able to upgrade to that big house with the beautiful backyard, everything would change, and you would finally allow yourself to enjoy life without longing for more.

How did that work out for you? Unless you are very different to most people, you probably overestimated the effect that raise or that newer and bigger house would have on your happiness. And if you are like most people, it probably had little lasting impact on your happiness at all. Sure, it felt great when you got the first pay cheque or the day you moved in, but after a while, you were probably back to thinking about if you just made a little bit more, you would be set. Or if you were just able to afford a similar house in a slightly better neighbourhood, with an ocean view, everything would be perfect.

That is life on the hedonic treadmill for you. It is brutal, and there’s but little room for rest. Why is it that so many of us spend our lives chasing arbitrary artefacts, thinking that they are the pots of gold at the end of the rainbow that will bring us happiness and contentedness? The theory of hedonic adaption, also known as the hedonic treadmill, states that major positive, or negative life events, have little lasting effect on our levels of happiness because we adjust our expectations and desires as soon as the changes occur. Or, put another way, we believe that we will get off the treadmill once we can run a little bit faster, but instead, our minds adjust the speed of the treadmill according to the pace we run at.

The concept is not a novel one. In Discourse on Inequality, which was published nearly three centuries ago, the Swiss-French philosopher, author and musician Jean Jacques Rosseau wrote:

Since these conveniences by becoming habitual had almost entirely ceased to be enjoyable, and at the same time degenerated into true needs, it became much more cruel to be deprived of them than to possess them was sweet, and men were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them.

For most people this will not be a new concept, and, as mentioned before, nearly everyone will recognise what it describes. “Life on the hampster wheel” is a familiar trope in popular culture as well. So, why am I writing about the concept, if is familiar to most already, and I have no new revelations to add? Simply to state that we are all destined to spend our lives in futile pursuit of happiness we can never achieve, pots of gold we can never reach?

Jump Off The Treadmill and Take a Run Outside

It so happens that despite most people being vaguely familiar with the concept, very few take it in, process this knowledge and try to figure out what it means for the lives they have and continue to work so hard to build. Instead, we think to themselves “well ain’t that the truth!” before going to bed a little too late, feeling a bit of guilt because we know we won’t be able to perform to our full potential at work on too little sleep. And that’s a crying shame because our boss has indicated that if we just go the extra mile a couple of more times, we’ll be a shoo-in for that promotion. And the extra money from that promotion would go a long way in covering the bump in our car loan payments from a slightly more expensive car, which we desperately need despite our current car doing the job just fine. Because if you don’t drive the right car, you’re unlikely to get that next promotion after that because, as we all know, appearances do count for something. But, at least we realised the folly of it all and felt enlightened, if only for a brief moment, after skimming the headlines of one of the long reads articles we saved to Instapaper a couple of months back.

A row of treadmills
Will you ditch the treadmill, and go for a run outside instead? Photo by Jeff Blackler.

The point of writing this is to tell you that there is another way of life. Knowledge, and a conscious approach to the choices we make and how they will affect our mental, and physical, well-being gives us another way. Regularly reminding ourselves to take a step back, and examine why we make the choices we do, and if they truly will provide the happiness we are looking for, means that we can combat the effects of the hedonic treadmill, and make actual progress towards a more fulfilling life.

The added side effect of liberating ourselves from the hedonic treadmill is, usually, a better grip on your finances. Because, while not many people are consciously aware of how the concept of hedonic adaption shapes and influences their decision making, consumer-facing companies base their business model on hedonic adaption. Apple is counting on being able to appeal to your need for just a little more pace on the treadmill by marketing an only slightly upgraded iPhone for a seemingly fair price. Automakers are utterly reliant on you reaching the decision that getting from A to B just isn’t the same unless you do it in style. Couple that business model with a population that isn’t conscious with regards to why they feel the need for an upgrade, and lo’ and behold, you get an entire society built around rampant, unchecked consumerism. A world where nothing is valued higher than the next high that comes from acquiring something to adds no discernible value to our lives.

Adopting a more conscious lifestyle does not need to entail moving to a cabin in the woods and embracing the life of a hermit. All we need to do is remind ourselves now and then that particular psychological aspects influence us, and large enterprises are relying on us to let those aspects guide our decision making. But by being conscious about what truly adds value to our lives, we can spend our time, our energy, and our money in the areas that truly add to the life we want to lead.

Try it, and I promise you your wallet will thank you for it. And don’t forget to subscribe to our mailing list, so that you can read the upcoming articles about how to put all that extra money to work for you.

Header photo by Sindre Skrede.