Sep 15 / Kelly LaPorta, LMFT

Understanding Our Hedonic Setpoint

Here’s a profound yet simple truth that has the power to transform your life:

Happiness isn't discovered by relentlessly pursuing the next big thing. In fact, the more we buy into this misconception, the unhappier we tend to become.

We've been sold a pervasive lie, one that's deeply ingrained into our consumer-driven, achievement-oriented culture.

It’s the lie that tells us our happiness levels will soar as soon as we acquire that one missing 'thing' in our lives, achieve a specific goal, or reach a particular destination.

This lie keeps us running on what researchers call the 'Hedonic Treadmill.'

The Hedonic Treadmill (a term coined by Brickman and Campbell (1971), is a human’s tendency to return to a baseline level of happiness despite both positive and adverse events in their lives.

Here’s how this plays out:

We chase after a coveted desire, assuming it will increase our happiness. When we attain that desire, we experience temporary increases in pleasure only to swiftly adapt to our new circumstance and return to our baseline level of happiness, or our “hedonic setpoint.”

In other words, we’re all born with a relatively stable “level of happiness” that doesn’t seem to vacillate much despite positive and negative changes in our lives.

Think about it:

How often have you been confident that something outside of you would bring you more happiness?

That new outfit. The bigger house. The new relationship. The job promotion. The luxurious car. The new puppy.

And how long did that initial excitement last?

How long did it take you to return to a relatively normal level of happiness, eagerly seeking the next thing to once again make you happier?

It’s a vicious cycle. And if we aren’t aware of it, we will live in perpetual dissatisfaction.

Many elderly adults come to grips with this truth in their later years and look back at their lives feeling duped and disappointed by the rat race that promised them more happiness and didn’t deliver. 

So, if obtaining more won't provide enduring joy, what will? Is there anything we can do? How can we step off this hedonic treadmill that keeps us in a perpetual rat race and leaves us feeling empty, despondent, and deceived?

Well, for one, don’t become a victim of what author Dr. Tal Ben Shahar describes as The Arrival Fallacy, or “the false belief that reaching a valued destination can sustain happiness.” Actively and consciously reject the idea that any achievement, person, success, or belonging will bring you more happiness than you already have.

Instead, focus on these practices that have indeed shown to have an impact on our overall wellbeing and hedonic setpoint: 

1) Practice Gratitude- Countless studies continue to point to the impact that gratitude practices have on our level of happiness. A few weeks ago we talked about “A What’s Right Attention.” Cultivating this type of attention is a great place to start.

2) Engage in acts of kindness towards others – Acts of kindness not only benefit the person we’re helping but also helps us increase feelings of well-being and satisfaction.

3) Build strong relationships, embrace vulnerability, and find a sense of belonging with others. Deepen your connections with those around you.

4) Focus on personal development - challenging yourself, learning, and aligning with your values. Find joy in the process as much as the outcome.

5) Engage in life-giving activities and hobbies that promote joy and relaxation.

6) Manage your Body Budget. Make sure you are ‘balancing your body budget’ by making healthy deposits each day (sleep, exercise, nutrition, connection).

Hope this helps you find more stable happiness this week,

Kelly LaPorta 
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