The Hedonic Treadmill: An Endless Pursuit of Happiness

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Happy" by Derren Brown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the “hedonic treadmill”? Why are so many of us stuck in this emotional cycle? How can you get out of it?

Much of life is a tug-of-war between various aspects of existence—we’re caught in the struggle between what we desire and life’s obstacles. Author Derren Brown argues that this struggle in modern society has trapped many of us in a destructive emotional cycle called the hedonic treadmill.

Read on to learn how Brown explains the dangers of the hedonic treadmill and how to end the cycle.

What Is the Hedonic Treadmill?

Happy author Derren Brown identifies desire as one of the most detracting emotion from happiness. Nearly every choice we make in life is to fulfill some desire, whether big or small, but the pleasure desire brings is always short-lived. Brown explains the nature of what psychologists call the “hedonic treadmill,” while also elaborating on the problems brought on by the search for wealth and fame.

According to Brown and many others, the hedonic treadmill is a self-repeating emotional cycle of desire, pleasure, and disillusionment. It begins like this: You see something you want, whether it be a person, an achievement, or a shiny new toy. You do the work and/or spend the money to achieve the object of your desire, and you’re happy. But it doesn’t last. Whatever it was you desired loses luster, and the temporary joy of receiving it fades. Soon you’re bored, you desire something else, and the cycle starts all over again.

(Shortform note: The causes and effects of the hedonic treadmill go beyond mere emotional satisfaction. In Dopamine Nation, Anna Lembke explains that because our brains evolved in an era of scarcity, our modern age of abundance creates the perfect conditions for indulging our senses and continually stimulating our production of dopamine, the chemical that drives us to seek new rewards. The pain/pleasure cycle of the hedonic treadmill goes into overdrive as our brains build up a tolerance to pleasure, requiring us to work the treadmill harder to achieve the same good feelings as before.)

Brown writes that many desires fueling the hedonic treadmill are driven by our need to impress other people, but the pleasure that comes from “showing up” others is fleeting in the extreme. Comparing ourselves to others breeds envy, even more so when comparing ourselves to those we consider our peers. Comparison and envy place our self-worth and happiness outside ourselves and in the hands of others. It’s the opposite of taking responsibility for our feelings.

(Shortform note: While chasing after status relative to others may sabotage your chances to be happy, it can be valuable in other parts of life. In Pitch Anything, Oren Klaff highlights the importance of relative status for commanding attention. He identifies two types of status—“global,” determined by wealth and position, and “situational,” which fluctuates because of context. Klaff contends that status does matter if you wish to persuade others with an idea, in which case having a higher status than your audience will help your cause.)

Other Barriers to Happiness

Even though we accept it as a given that the pursuit of happiness is core to human nature, most of us suffer from misguided notions about what happiness is, fueled by messages from the media and society. Instead of seeking contentment in the everyday balance between our aims and our troubles, the world at large would have us believe that happiness is something we can win like a trophy.

Positive Thinking

As counterintuitive as it sounds, “positive thinking” (as it’s peddled by the self-help industry and motivational speakers) can be toxic in the extreme. In explaining the relationship between positive thinking and the hedonic treadmill, Brown claims that the philosophy of positive thinking oversells its benefits, leads to cycles of shame, and relies on false assumptions about what truly makes us happy. 

(Shortform note: While Brown fires shots at proponents of shallow positivity, he doesn’t directly argue against the work of Norman Vincent Peale, who popularized the idea of positive thinking in 1952’s The Power of Positive Thinking. Peale, who practiced as a minister for 50 years and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, claimed that a positive mindset could overcome any obstacle when combined with faith in yourself and practical efforts toward change.)

Brown defines positive thinking as the belief that through concentrated hope, prayer, or just wishing really hard, you can influence the universe to manifest your desires. The particular targets of Brown’s ire are faith healers, the prosperity gospel movement, and Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret, which argues that your thoughts “attract” the things you want. Focusing energy and attention on a project (such as learning to act on the stage) can certainly make a positive outcome more likely (becoming a movie star), but according to Brown, positive thinking proponents overpromise on results while downplaying the importance of random chance (for example, that a famous director might see you perform).

(Shortform note: Similar to Byrne’s claims in The Secret are those of Vex King in Good Vibes, Good Life. King asserts that thoughts and feelings have vibrational frequencies, and that positive thoughts have higher vibrations that attract more positivity back to you. Scientists insist that’s not how vibrational energy works and point to the misuse of scientific jargon to add credibility to pseudoscience and mysticism.)

Positive thinking, argues Brown, is about fooling yourself for as long as you can in the face of unpleasant realities. The most pernicious aspect of positive thinking is that when it fails to produce the desired results, it shifts the blame for its failure onto you. For example, if a minister fails to cure your illness, it’s your fault for not having enough faith. If The Secret doesn’t make you rich, it’s your fault for not being positive enough. Even if used by those with good intentions, the “not enough” defense of positive thinking attacks a person’s feelings of self-worth.

(Shortform note: In The Secret, Byrne doesn’t make the explicit claim that your thoughts have to be “positive enough,” only that they need to be persistent. However, by declaring The Secret to be infallible and by tying it directly to your feelings of worthiness, she implies that if positivity doesn’t change your life, it’s your own thinking that’s to blame. Even if Byrne’s method is successful, it may be dangerous to link your happiness to having “enough” of any quality. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown argues that to do so goes against treating yourself with compassion and leads to a downward spiral of shame.)

Money, Fame, and Success

Another aspect of the hedonic treadmill is envy—one thing we envy most in others is money. Who doesn’t feel jealous when a colleague gets a raise? Yet study after study has shown that money only makes people happier to a point. Once a person has enough to live comfortably, increasing wealth brings diminishing returns. Brown suggests that what’s important to your happiness is that you understand your relationship with money. Be aware of what emotions you bring to it, whether it’s anxiety about not having enough, resentment and envy directed at others, or a desire for the status it brings.

(Shortform note: Instead of adopting the attitude that desiring money is philosophically bad, it’s more useful to develop your financial intelligence. In Your Money or Your Life, Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez explain that if you understand the flow of money in your life, you can reframe money as energy you can use to fuel what gives your life meaning. In The Total Money Makeover, Dave Ramsey argues that money has the power to magnify your character and that if you’re a generous person, wealth can expand the reach of your generosity.)

Brown decries the plethora of business and motivation experts who promote goal-setting strategies as a path to achievement and success, and therefore happiness. While goal-focused strategies may seem more practical and realistic than positive wish-fulfillment schemes, goal-setting makes the false assumption that achievements and financial success will make us happy. The trap is that if you invest too much time and effort into one specific goal, you end up sacrificing other aspects of your life. Then even if you achieve your goal, other parts of your life will be empty. 

(Shortform note: In Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans dispute this point. They agree that there isn’t one goal that will make you happy and that a happy life balances all of its aspects. However, they contend that you can achieve happiness by identifying actionable life paths and pursuing them as if you’re hunting for a job.)

Another form of desire is our longing for recognition and fame. As with any other kind of envy, Brown asserts that believing status will make you happy is once again placing your self-worth outside yourself. And yet the modern cult of celebrity is the loudest voice in the chorus teaching us that happiness comes from popularity and wealth. Our desire to be famous is also closely linked with our need to be loved, though it glosses over the fact that the “love” celebrities receive is both shallow and blown out of proportion. In addition, fame tempts us with a sort of immortality, though many celebrities quickly fall out of the public eye.

(Shortform note: Beyond the old truism that “fame isn’t what it’s cracked up to be,” if you find yourself suddenly famous, you’ll need a whole new set of life skills. In Ego Is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday says that to maintain your new status, you’ll have to be a lifelong student, especially as your priorities shift in new directions. In his autobiography Greenlights, actor Matthew McConaughey recounts how his own sudden rise to fame made his life so surreal that he had to relearn how to psychologically ground himself.)

The Hedonic Treadmill: An Endless Pursuit of Happiness

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Derren Brown's "Happy" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Happy summary:

  • The definition of happy, according to ancient Greek philosophers and Stoics
  • The importance of balancing desires with realities
  • How to overcome the three biggest barriers to happiness

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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