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March 17, 2021

Are you on the Treadmill?

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When you’re on a treadmill at the gym or at home you likely step off when you’ve reached a time or distance marker. But what about the treadmill in your mind? Positive psychology coined the term “hedonic treadmill” to refer to the patterns that we unconsciously implement to stay within our happiness set points. Conscious leaders know when they’re on this life-limiting treadmill, and they know how to get off. Let’s explore more…

Debbie and I have seven grandchildren who we regularly get to be with as they ride the hedonic treadmill. It’s fun to watch and amazing to see how we humans come with this natural tendency wired into us. Last Christmas the treadmill started turning when they woke up at about 4 a.m. with a sense of great excitement and anticipation … “something is about to happen that is going to make me really happy.” The parents hold them off until a few cups of coffee have been consumed and then the fun begins. One package after another torn open, glanced at, in some cases celebrated, a quick hit of dopamine and then back into the pile for another round. After it’s all over, whether later that day or a week into the future the kids have returned to the starting point from which the journey began. 

I want to focus on this particular version of the hedonic treadmill: 

  • You’re not as happy as you’d like to be 
  • Something or someone out there can make you happier 
  • You pursue the something or someone 
  • You get the something or someone 
  • You feel momentarily happier
  • Your happiness fades and you return to the original state of (1.) I’m not as happy as I’d like to be. 

And round and round we go...

The hedonic treadmill is the name given to the research findings that show that we all have an individual happiness set point, and that this happiness set point is not meaningfully changed by either good or bad things that happen in our lives. We return to the same happiness level we were experiencing before we got what it was we wanted (or didn’t want).

The research confirms what we have all known experientially for most of our lives: good things don’t produce lasting change in our general sense of well being. Yet knowing this and doing something about it are two very different things. Even though we know that getting the new car or house, the special person, the raise or promotion, or acceptance to the program or club doesn’t produce lasting change, we still spend our lives pursuing what we think will make us happier. 

It’s so simple to see. Just take a moment to honestly complete this sentence five times:

“I’ll become happy when …………”


Or as a team at work, “We’ll become happy when …………”

Your answers are the treadmill in action. Once I get what it is that I seek and want, once what is missing is no longer missing, THEN I’ll be happy. 

If it’s so obvious to all of us why do we stay on the treadmill? I think there are several reasons. 

  1. When we get what we want we get a temporary surge of happiness. We often really are happier for a short time, usually seconds, minutes and hours, not days, weeks or months. This hit of happiness, though short lived, keeps us coming back for more. 
  2. If we don’t pursue the short term hit of happiness, what else are we going to do? If we just sit in our normal state of happiness or unhappiness (our set point) we don’t experience much relief or hope. We’d rather have seconds of some increased happiness than just have our personal status quo.
  3. Everyone else is doing it so they must all know something we don’t know. So, we go along and do it as well. There is a collective collusion to not tell ourselves and others that getting one more good thing won’t make any real difference. Can you imagine saying to your friend who is celebrating their latest promotion, “That’s great. Good for you, but you know the happiness you’re feeling won’t last. You’ll be back to your normal self in a short time.” Talk about a buzz kill.
  4. In the workplace we often unconsciously, and sometimes consciously, use the hedonic treadmill to keep people motivated. “If you hit these targets you’ll get this bonus and, [inferred] you’ll be happier.” “If you complete this project, you’ll get lots of appreciation and recognition and you’ll be happier.” “If we go public (and do all we have to do to make the offering a success) we’ll get money and freedom and we’ll be much happier.” We use this form of motivation because it works. In this case “works” is defined as keeping people motivated, focussed, aligned and engaged in the short run. The question is this, “If we didn’t leverage the hedonic treadmill how would we motivate ourselves and others?” 

So in light of all of this, what do conscious leaders do?

They realize and live from the reality that becoming happy is a fool’s errand and being happy is a key to life and a life well lived.” Becoming happy is rooted in “If/then” thinking. “If I get that then I’ll be happy.” Being happy is rooted in a direct experience of reality, of this now moment. Happiness is being with what is without suffering. That happiness is available to each of us right now. The more I can be with what is right now without suffering, the more I experience happiness. The more I stop resisting what is the more I experience that happiness (peace, equanimity, imperturbability) is here. I don’t need to go anywhere, do anything, or get something to become happy. Happiness is.

Because they understand the above and see through the illusion of becoming happy through if/then thinking, they set up their life with practices that remind them of the truth that happiness is already here. Here are a few of those practices that work for many people:

Do 10-minutes of lovingkindness meditation daily. Research has shown that doing lovingkindness meditation for several weeks changes your happiness set point. Almost every meditation app (Waking Up, HeadsSpace, Calm, Insight Timer) has several wonderful lovingkindness meditations. Find one you like and do it for 10 minutes a day for 30 days. As a test keep score. Write down a number between 1-10 for your happiness that day and see what happens over the course of a month.

Stop feeding the beast. Again, for a month stop buying things that you think will make you happy. This is very subtle because we tell ourselves, “This isn’t to make me happy, it’s just to take care of a need.” The deal is that the mind thinks it will be happy if the need is taken care of. What putting ourselves on a simplicity diet does is that it helps to curb our addiction to the chemicals that come with and offer temporary happiness. For this practice I’ve found it’s good to have a learning buddy or partner who wants to play this game as well so you can support each other in coming off the juice. 

Pause before purchasing. If stopping buying for a month is too much to ask then simply pause before you hit the purchase button and ask, “Do I think this is going to make me happy or relieve some unhappiness (anxiety, longing, needing)?” Actually check. If the answer is yes take a deep breath and just be with that, “I think that this piece of clothing will make me happy.” Then ask, “Would I rather become happy when I get it or be happy right now?” Just ask. Then go ahead and buy it or not. The interruption of the automatic pattern will start to create space for you to see a new reality. 

Go to the root issue of seeking, wanting, attraction and resisting and aversion and spend time dealing with the core compulsion. We recommend practices like Byron Katie and The Work (here is a great clip on her talking about happiness) or Hale Dwoskin and the Sedona Method. There are many wise teachers and traditions that you can use to support yourself to experience real lasting happiness. 

As leaders do their own work and spend more and more time off of the treadmill, they begin to realize that it’s good business, and good human-hood, to support their teams to get off the treadmill and to experience happiness in this now moment. What they discover is that people who experience being happy versus becoming happy are very motivated to create, collaborate, and compete. The motivation comes from a very different place than the motivation to finally become happy. The new motivation is much more sustainable for the individual, the team, the organization, and the world. 

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