Most of us are convinced that there are certain things that will make us happier – however, as psychologist Cass Dunn explains, the grass is not necessarily greener.
If you’ve ever lusted after something – a dream job, a new coat, a bowl of pasta – only to get it and find yourself unsatisfied yet again, we have news for you: you are very human.
Most of us are convinced that certain things will make us happy, from the small things (a new season of your favourite TV show, Glastonbury tickets or a bottle of wine with a friend after work) to the bigger things (a promotion, an all-inclusive five-star holiday to the Maldives or a new relationship).
And yet, few of us live in a state of perpetual bliss, even when we get the things we so apparently crave. In reality, happiness ebbs and flows.
But why? Our human tendency to continue to pursue things we think will make us happy (only to find ourselves back chasing the next thing shortly after) is not only perfectly normal, it’s embedded in our biological makeup. It’s also what psychologists call the ‘hedonic treadmill’.
What is the hedonic treadmill?
“What we know is that humans adapt very quickly to our circumstances (whether good or bad), hence when we seek out something that will bring us happiness, if often does, but that thrill very quickly wears off and so we’re back on the treadmill looking for the next thing that will make us happy again,” clinical psychologist and author Cass Dunn explains to Stylist.co.uk.
On daily basis, Dunn says, this hedonic adaptation “leaves us with a constant sense of being slightly dissatisfied” and is “not helped by the fact that advertisers spend billions of dollars convincing us of the kind of consumer goods, physical appearance or lifestyle we should aspire to achieve if we want lasting happiness”.
As a result, we are constantly buying things we don’t need, comparing ourselves to others, and “always feeling like happiness is just around the corner rather than found right here”, Dunn says.
So we tend to look for easy and instant sources of pleasure – a glass of wine, scrolling on our phone, online shopping – to numb those feelings and stop us from feeling bad, bored or dissatisfied, Dunn says. What’s more, we tend to keep looking ahead for things that (we think) will make us happy.
“We convince ourselves that if we got a different job, lived in a different city, lost some weight, had more money in the bank, could buy a new car, then we’re be happy,” Dunn says.
And yet, as most of us know from experience, this is rarely ever the case. “The reality is that we could achieve all of those things and very soon that excitement would wear off, the new circumstances would become our new ‘normal’ and we’d be back chasing the next thing,” Dunn explains.
In the long term, this can rob us of the joy that is available to all of us in this very moment if we were just able to stop and appreciate it, Dunn says. “I think it causes us to focus on the wrong goals and miss the opportunity for a deeper sense of meaning and purpose.”
How do we overcome the hedonic treadmill?
“I’m not sure we’ll ever completely overcome it unless we give up all our vices and become a minimalist – but I think the more we’re aware of it, the better position we’re in to curb some of our hedonic tendencies,” Dunn explains.
“The first and most important thing is to regularly practice gratitude and really, deeply appreciate everything we already have in our lives. Focusing on what we have is a great way to shift the focus from all the things you think you’re missing.
“Secondly, doing things for others is proven to provide a more lasting kind of satisfaction. It also has the effect of taking the focus off ourselves and our small worries or troubles. It could be anything from paying a compliment to volunteering in a shelter.
“Thirdly, really spending time connecting with your values, and choosing goals based on a deeper meaning rather than a quick superficial win. For all of us, finding a way to use our strengths, gifts or talents in the service of some kind of greater good (in other words, something beyond our own self-interest) is the best way to feel that our lives have meaning and this is truly the path to lasting fulfilment.”