May 31, 2005

Hedonic treadmill

Originally posted by cameron from overstated, reBlogged by ts

the hedonic hamster wheelI’m just about to return a book to the library, something I read a while back and have been meaning to post about for centuries. In their article “Hedonic Relativism and planning the good society**,” Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell give a name to the ongoing state of happiness that we all experience. Despite the fact that external forces are constantly changing our life goals, happiness for most people is a relatively constant state. Regardless of how good things get, we’ll always be about the same level of happy; this they call the hedonic treadmill.

Psychology researchers have observed this phenomenon in a myriad of different situations: lottery winners, tenure achievers, recently handicapped, etc. In all of these situations, despite a massive shift in standard of living or achievement of major life goals, after a short period of time the life-satisfaction levels return to normal.

If this is what we can expect from our own psychology, how does hedonic relevatism affect the way we choose to live our lives? Brickman and Campbell look at this question from a societal level, and suggest that there is an optimal setup for making every member of our culture as happy as possible. You have to give them credit, it was the 70’s and socialism was still a form of utopia. But as far as I can tell, the only way to keep yourself on an increasing scale of happiness is to achieve some small goals on a daily basis, not putting too much emphasis on achieving one over another.

So why am I writing this damned Ph.D.?!

** Brickman, Philip, & Campbell, Donald. (1977). “Hedonic relativism and planning the good society.” In M.H. Appley (Ed.), Social comparison processes: Theoretical and empirical perspectives. New York: Wiley/Halsted.

[Man, I have certainly observed (and experienced) this plenty of times first-hand, especially working in the dot-com and wireless booms. This is really interesting, and reminds me of this post about happiness and the mania for pleasure in the U.S. — ts]