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Hedonic adaptation and the happiness treadmill

Hedonic adaptation and the happiness treadmill
Chris Moriarity

A sign in a window read: “Right now someone with less than you, is happy.”


I’ll admit, for bumper-sticker psychology this ranks pretty high. From a young age, we’re conditioned to compare our happiness to the assumed happiness of anonymous strangers. This is generally kicked-off the first time a child doesn’t finish a meal:

“There are starving children in Africa that would kill to have this!”

We know why we do this. We’re trying to ensure that people feel grateful and on some level simply reduce waste. However, it doesn’t work. Because, either A) The resource was undesired and therefore less valuable or B) The kid simply wasn’t hungry. Either way, the outcome was rarely gratitude; it was either confusion or shame.

The reason I draw on this shared bit of Americana is the simple fact that these attitudes follow us into adulthood and thus into our businesses.

Often, business owners fight minute-to-minute for feelings of satisfaction or success. Unfortunately, this can manifest into feelings of borderline contempt for the people that work for them.

“If they only knew how good they have it, people would kill for these jobs!”

Sound familiar? These feeling and generally false assumptions can literally kill a business. So, how do we avoid it? We give it a name.

A psychologist would call it ‘Hedonic Adaptation’ an economist would call it a decrease in ‘Marginal Utility.’ You can pick your favorite.

Hedonic adaptation explains our happiness treadmill and why we never seem fully satisfied. High-achievers set goals; however the psychological benefit and emotional lift we get from accomplishing a goal has a timeline. As time goes on the new car, raise, or business growth we fought so hard for doesn’t scratch the itch anymore. We find ourselves almost obsessively looking for more, while feeling like we have less, despite achievements we have even recently attained.

Do not paint this as a negative. Remember, being comfortable never led to anything. These impulses and patterns are often what keep us moving and drive us to new heights.

The real trap is when we convince ourselves that we’re the only one that feels this way.

Take a moment and think about how this applies to others.

Imagine I offered you a piece of candy and gave you one more every 5 minutes. While the value of the candy is unchanged, the marginal utility decreases. We’ve all experiences this. The first piece is delicious and amazing, the second a little less, the third a little less and so on until they have no more value or use to you. Again, the candy still has value, just not to you.

Now, let’s apply this to your employees, friends and family. The people around you are ‘handing you candy’ all day. We just can’t always see it. This unfortunate mind-trap typically only reveals itself when the pattern is interrupted. We all know the expression:

“You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

This doesn’t make us assholes. It makes us human. We literally need basic reminders to ensure that those we lead will follow us into the trenches. Most unsatisfied team members report that the thing they want most is simply to be thanked.

THANKED?? For doing their jobs??? Those ungrateful bastards…

See that there? That is my first reaction, is it yours too? You have to break the pattern,

Just say thank you. Help them set goals to personally develop.

You’ll gain more satisfaction being a leader than you ever will being a boss.

Now…finish your dinner.



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