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Get Off the (Hedonic) Treadmill

The pleasure from your big purchase will only decrease with time. Here's the psychology of the hedonic treadmill.

November 8th, 2011

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.

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Get Off the (Hedonic) Treadmill

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.

COLUMN: Control Your Shopping Impulses

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.

MORE: Materialism Hurts Marriage

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?

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