Using the Hedonic Treadmill To Be More Productive

Posted on January 11, 2008
Filed Under Critical Thinking, Productivity |

office-treadmill.jpgJoseph 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.


8 Responses to “Using the Hedonic Treadmill To Be More Productive”

  1. Using the Hedonic Treadmill To Be More Productive · Treadmill Reviews and Information on January 11th, 2008 2:28 pm

    [...] Original post by Coconut Headsets [...]

  2. Joe Bennett on January 11th, 2008 3:11 pm

    Really interesting post. I’m going to go be productive now.

  3. Doug Granzow on January 11th, 2008 7:04 pm

    I’m pretty tough on myself too — some days I just feel like I’ve wasted the whole day. Often, though, when I think about what I accomplished that day, it turns out that I was really productive — despite lots of “wasted” time.

    Maybe it does come down to balance — those days where I beat myself up the most seem to be days where I am trying to focus on one single thing, at the expense of other important parts of my life.

    Many of my happiest days are when I accomplish something outside of the norm. Last week I successfully installed a ceiling fan in my office. It was something I had never done before, so living up to that challenge gave me a great feeling of accomplishment. Not only do I have a nicer office because of it, but I have the satisfaction of having done it myself.

    But I do have to take you to task for choosing productivity over watching Lost. How can anyone be happy if they miss Lost??!? :)

  4. happy visitor on January 12th, 2008 8:23 am

    “Why pursue more happiness as a goal when the truth is that you are already happy enough, and are unlikely to get happier?”

    A few months ago, I listened a few hours of a course on happiness at Harvard (I think), available as a podcast (look it up). The lecturer had also published a book on the subject.

    The main point I remember is this: it is difficult to be happy (what is happiness etc…), but it is easy to become happier.

    A number of concrete daily actions were mentionned, result of psych research.

    Example: a gratitude journal. Every day, list five things for which you are grateful.

  5. My Inner French Girl on January 12th, 2008 9:28 pm

    Excellent post. I can relate to the balancing of desires after a given time period. Because of a chronic illness, I had to go on a very restricted diet a couple of years ago that meant giving up anything with even a grain of sugar in any form (sugar, honey, maple syrup, corn syrup, food-grade glucose, etc.). A real challenge for someone with a major sweet tooth like I.

    What I found, however, is that after a few days, the craving for ice cream, cheesecake, chocolates — anything sweet — pretty much disappeared. My husband could eat an entire pan of cookies in front of me, and I would feel…nothing.

    Of course, once I got back on my regular diet two months later and could eat sweets again, I found that it didn’t take long for my body to get used to wanting them again. But I know now that it’s possible for me to be happy and satisfied without ever consuming sugar again.

    A Buddhist monk made a similar observation awhile back when my husband and I mentioned an impending move to Hawaii. He shrugged and said, “You can be happy anywhere, even here [in Dallas].” At the time, we didn’t really understand what he meant, but now we do.


  6. John W. McKenna on January 13th, 2008 9:33 am


    Great choice for a post. I’ve often wondered, if our sense of happiness is more-or-less constant, then what about other senses of being? Do they suffer the same fate, e.g. does our “sense of balance”, “sense of accomplishment” or “sense of purpose” remain more-or-less constant? If yes, than perhaps this is the driver behind the adage, “If you want something done, than give it to a busy person.” Busy, driven and focused people accomplish more because they don’t feel they are accomplishing enough.

    More importantly, perhaps this is the driver behind developing groups where individuals pursue & take on increasing levels of responsibility; find alignment with their goals & the goals of their group and ultimately become high-value leader/follower participants.

    Take care…



    I’m glad you are continuing to share your thoughtful posts on your new blog.


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