The Hedonic Treadmill: Part 1

We’re about a month removed from the holidays, and regardless of how you celebrate the season, one thing that seems to be a common theme is the expectation of a sense of joy or happiness. For some, this may happen thanks to their connection to certain religious beliefs. For others, it may be more secular and/or consumer-oriented. Or perhaps some combination of both. In my case, it tends to be very superficial – the exchanging of gifts (usually at the exchange counter).

Assuming that most of us went through the season with a similar experience and set of expectations as I mentioned above (oh, how my heart soared when I received a pair of electric ear muffs, the Partridge Family Greatest Hits CD, and my very own Garden Weasel), one would expect that whatever level of happiness we felt at the moment, we must still be experiencing.

Same thing with the phenomena known as the vacation. We plan, anticipate, and run off to some ideal destination, near or far, and then, when that vacation has come to an end, we bask in the afterglow for days and weeks on end.

Except that isn’t the case at all. A few days after the holidays, or after the conclusion of our vacation, our level of euphoria, excitement, or contentment simply dissipates. In the aftermath, it all seems downright fleeting. Oh misery! Oh despair! Oh that-really-sucks!

However, experience shows that in the same way we don’t stay at those heights, our psyche doesn’t allow us to stay at those depths either.

And that’s the point of the Hedonic Treadmill. According to the theory of hedonic adaptation, we will always return to our standard level of happiness, regardless of what positive or negative events may transpire. The treadmill analogy was developed by Michael Eysenck, a British psychology researcher who compared the pursuit of happiness to a person running on a treadmill. You have to keep working just to stay in the same place.

Now think about that in context with the employment experience. You start a new job. Everything is wonderful. You’re happy about your new circumstances, the compensation, the benefits, even the local restaurants. But hedonic theory tells us that this employment contentment will level off. And when it does, we find ourselves back to the level of happiness on this new job that we had at our old job. Oh, the irony!

If we accept this as true, or even only relatively true, then how can we expect employee engagement or satisfaction or whatever measure we want to use, to improve when the employment experience is relatively static? Answer: we can’t.

That means we need to design a new type of experience. One that is dynamic, introducing new ideas, programs, and policies on a regular basis in order to achieve a more fulfilling experience for employees.

Next time: how to accomplish that little task.


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Thomas Delorme
Written by Thomas Delorme

VP, Digital Products & Strategy

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