Joseph Schumpeter used to record a daily score in his diary for how hard he worked that day. He was not kind to himself and frequently gave himself low grades even as he churned out famous works like Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. He felt like he spent too much of his day doing unproductive things. He should be glad he did not live in the age of the Web. It’s a productivity killer like no other.
Why do we work? Why do we care about being productive? Ultimately it’s so that we have more time and more money to do the things that we enjoy. But there is a catch. According to a theory called the Hedonic Treadmill, our happiness stays in pretty much the same place regardless of what happens to us in life. It may move for a while if someone close to you dies, or if you win the lottery, but within a few months most people will return to their baseline level of happiness. There is one caveat. Your happiness only stays the same above some baseline level of achievement. For instance, being dirt poor does not lead to the same level of happiness as being filthy rich, but once you reach middle class income levels, there is little happiness variation as income increases.
The hedonic treadmill is an important idea because it means that if we engage in more recreation, spend more time passively idle, and do a lot more shopping and spending to acquire nice things, we aren’t any happier for it (assuming our base level of recreation, etc is met). This probably explains why celebrities lives are so shallow and pathetic. But there is a flip side to the hedonic treadmill that can be useful to us. If we spend time doing difficult things, working a bit more or a bit harder, exercising when we don’t really feel like it, acquiring more knowledge, we are no less happier for all the time spent on such things.
Let me give a personal example here. In 2007, I gave up desserts for the entire year - no cookies, candies, brownies, cakes, doughnuts, pies, ice cream, etc. Several people commented that it would be a miserable year. But there was really no change in my attitude, and I felt healthier for it. My happiness was unchanged, yet I had more energy. When 2008 came, I never looked back on 2007 and thought “man, if only I had eaten more dessert it would have been so much better.” On the contrary, once the first few moments of desire for a chocolate brownie had passed, it didn’t matter. I never thought about it again.
I don’t know about you, but I often get distracted from the things I should be doing to achieve my long-term goals. I sit and watch basketball on tv, or surf the web and Twitter things that really aren’t that important. I justify it by saying that I’m relaxing, that I’m tired, and that I deserve this. But the hedonic treadmill says that is unlikely to be true. And my experience corroborates that. In 1997, I lived 9 months without a tv, and I didn’t miss it. My happiness didn’t change. I just got used to the situation. And ultimately, that is what the hedonic treadmill says - that we get used to things.
So, with that in mind, how do you use the hedonic treadmill to increase your productivity? You structure your life with two goals in mind. First, that you include some time for balance. This is time spent to reach your minimum levels of recreation, idleness, etc. Secondly, you set regular goals that are focused on things other than happiness. For instance, you make yourself work on that side project even when you want to watch Lost. You make yourself get up for that run, even when you want to sleep in. You do this by telling yourself that sleeping in and watching Lost really don’t make you any happier.
Now, the obvious question that pops to mind is why should I want to be more productive if it doesn’t make me happier? Maybe you don’t and that is fine. But, increased productivity can make you healthier, meaning that you live longer. It can mean that you learn more and thus have more opportunities to take interesting jobs, make more money, and contribute something more back to the world. Living longer may not change your day to day happiness, but it is still something most of us desire. Making more money may not change your day to day happiness, but it can have a big impact on the lives of other people if you use it the right way.
Modern life has made even the poorest of American rich relative to global standards of living. All the time we spend keeping up with the Jones, trying to make ourselves happier, is rarely going to make a difference in our lives. With that in mind, you should use the hedonic treadmill to help you break out of the the pattern. Why pursue more happiness as a goal when the truth is that you are already happy enough, and are unlikely to get happier? The pursuit of ever more happiness often distracts us from other goals that we have, and those goals shouldn’t get pushed to the side. So pursue a balanced life with balanced goals, and you can have your happiness and much more along with it.