We have all had this happen. There’s some great new thing out there. It might be a car, or a computer, a dress or a diamond. Whatever it is, you look at it longingly. You study ads and you admire people who have something similar. You figure that once you get that object, your life will be more complete.And then, the day comes. The object of those desires becomes yours. And for a moment, you’re happy. Maybe even deliriously happy. But after a while, that object is yours. It becomes a part of your life as it is. And it no longer makes you so happy. But, there is something else out there that would do it. A watch, or a washing machine, an espresso machine or pair of earrings. Some new object becomes the focus of your attention, and the cycle continues.
This cycle of desire, attainment, (brief) happiness, next desire is what psychologist Danny Kahneman called the hedonic treadmill. The idea is that no matter how much you want something and no matter how much you think that object will bring you pleasure, when you finally get it, it quickly becomes a part of your life as it is. At that point, the object no longer brings you the same level of joy, and you need something else to help make you happy.
Now, this cycle can have its benefits. In your career, it is hard to seek advancement if you are completely happy at your job. And so, it can be valuable to be looking forward to the next stage and to be seeking new challenges. When you first get a new position, it may feel wonderful and challenging, but eventually you need new challenges to advance. So, the hedonic treadmill is useful there.
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But, when it comes to stuff, the hedonic treadmill is just a pain. No object is ever going to be the thing that really makes you happy. No matter how beautiful, or expensive, or rare that object is, eventually it will just come to seem part of the way your life is.So, how do you step off the hedonic treadmill?
Here are two things you can do.
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First, rather than focusing your desires on things, focus them on experiences. Research demonstrates that when you spend money to create memories, you are happier than when you spend money to buy things. So, rather than getting that expensive bracelet, buy a musical instrument. Instead of one more new dress, treat yourself to a half day at a nice spa. Keep your car an extra year and go on a wonderful vacation instead. In the long run, your memories of those events will outlast the objects, and they’ll make you happier.
Second, get in the habit of doing things for others. We live in a consumer culture, and there is a lot of pressure to spend money and to keep up with the latest trends. But, a day spent at a soup kitchen, an afternoon with an autistic grade schooler or a morning cleaning up the local park will give you more of a boost than almost anything you can spend your money on. In the end, feeling a closer connection to your community gives a huge boost to your self-esteem.