“The Hedonic Treadmill”


From Richard Layard’s (economist @ LSE, and one of perhaps a handful of economists to seriously devote a chunk of their time to research in the infant sub-field of happiness economics) Happiness: Lessons From a New Science:

“[L]iving standards are to some extent like alcohol or drugs. Once you have a certain experience you need to keep on having more of it if you want to sustain your happiness.

[T]his process is known as adaption. If adaption is ‘complete,’ only continual new stimuli can raise your well-being. Once your situation becomes stable again, you will revert to your ‘set-point’ level of happiness. You will do this whether the initial change is for better or for worse.

[T]here are some things that people never fully adjust to… miseries like widowhood, loud and unpredictable noise… And there are some good things that never pall –like sex, friends and even to some extent marriage.*”

The things that we get used to most easily and most take for granted are our material possessions… If we do not forsee that we get used to our material possessions, we shall overinvest in acquiring them, at the expense of our leisure.”

For any number of reasons, Americans pay the most for the little precious happiness we claim to experience. According to the OECD, people in the United States work more hours than our counterparts in rich nations, yet we don’t claim to be any happier. Considering the time left for non-work activities, in pursuing higher returns of happiness on each hour invested in existing, we should be having more sex (check –albeit in our case more = more unfulfilling), opting for the jobs that satisfy us most (no one I know), and perhaps picking our spouses more carefully (very few people I know), among other things. Though, as a nation, we spend far more time than any other glued to our television sets, which leaves even less time for the touching –lives, bodies, etc.– that tend to make us smile.

*Layard cites studies of Frederick and Lowenstein (1999) and Clark et al. (2003)