Stepping off the hedonic treadmill

How happy are you?Something was wrong. It was a crisp, clear September night. I was walking along the Hudson River, heading home through the park after a nice evening  with friends.

And I was unhappy. Instead of focusing on a beautiful walk home after a good day, I was muttering to myself about some detail at work. I stopped short and asked “Why?”

Why was I focusing on a small problem and not on all of the good things?

The hedonic treadmill

That was a few years ago. Since then, I’ve learned that my experience was reasonably normal. Most people, it turns out, have a “happiness set point”. That is, whether you’re an accident victim or a lottery winner, you tend to revert to the same level of happiness you were at before.

“The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the supposed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.”

To make matters worse, people tend to focus on the negative, just as I was doing.

“The notion of "historical neglect", that people tend to focus more on negative emotions than positive emotions, can become a great detriment to improving our happiness set point. Negative emotions require more attention and are remembered better, overshadowing any positive experiences that may even outnumber negative experiences.”

So, day after day, most of us dwell on the problems and issues we have and, no matter what happens, we’re as happy as we’re ever going to be.

A cause for optimism

But while research shows your particular happiness point is influenced by genetics, studies also show you can change it. The search for happiness has lead to more research and more research has lead to more books. Here are 10 of the most popular.

“The Art of Happiness”“Stumbling on Happiness”“Happiness: Essential Mindful Practices”“The How of Happiness”“Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” “The Happiness Project”“The Happiness Advantage”“The Happiness Hypothesis”“Real Happiness”“Authentic Happiness”.

There’s even a movie called, appropriately, “Happy”.

The good news is that all of this material agrees on the same basic formula for being happy.

How to be Happy

One of the simplest, most useful summaries of what we know about happiness is available from one of the best medical institutions in the US, the Mayo Clinic.

“Only 10 percent or so of the variation in people's reports of happiness can be explained by differences in their circumstances. It appears that the bulk of what determines happiness is due to personality and — more importantly — thoughts and behaviors that can be changed.

So, yes, you can learn how to be happy — or at least happier.

Although you may have thought, as many people do, that happiness comes from being born rich or beautiful or living a stress-free life, the reality is that people who have wealth, beauty or less stress are not happier on average than those of who don't enjoy those blessings.

People who are happy seem to intuitively know that their happiness is the sum of their life choices, and their lives are built on the following pillars:

Devoting time to family and friends

Appreciating what they have

Maintaining an optimistic outlook

Feeling a sense of purpose

Living in the moment”

My own first step

My problem was that this knowledge wasn’t helping me. After reading the books and watching the documentaries, nothing changed. Until a few months ago.

Instead of just wanting to be happy, I tried developing new habits to be happy. A few months ago, I wrote about some new things I was trying. Watching a video each morning on cultivating a sense of gratitude. Meditating a few times a week. For the first time, I even served food at a wonderful food bank.

Over time, to my utterly pleasant surprise, I noticed a difference. I noticed I was a bit calmer. More grateful for things and, well, happier. It was as if, just as the research showed, my new habits could change how my brain worked.

Now, I haven’t reached some exalted state. I still multi-task too much instead of being fully present, I may be the world’s worst meditator and I don’t give enough yet. But I’m happy-er.

My experience helped me understand why the Mayo Clinic’s prescription for happiness isn’t a pill. It’s “practice, practice, practice.”

And while I've only taken a step, it’ll be a lovely walk, and this time I’ll be sure to enjoy it.