There is a term called The Hedonic Treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation. The term was coined by psychologists Brickman and Campbell in the 70's. The theory is that a person quickly returns to a relatively stable level of happiness, regardless of what happens. Be it positive or negative events or life changes.
To explain Hedonism further, it's a school of thought that argues that "pleasure and happiness are the primary or most important intrinsic goods and the aim of human life." Or simplified, it's the pursuit of pleasure.
So essentially, The Hedonic Treadmill is the constant chase of pleasure and a better life. Of feeling that we need to improve ourselves or life situation.
Most of us know this well. If I lose 5kg I'll be happier. If I get a Range Rover I'll be happier. If I'm popular I'll be happier. If I find a partner I'll be happier. And so on.
So we run and we run, gain those things and often go to extremes to improve ourselves, only to wind up at the same level of happiness we originally were. And then go on to think that something else will make us happier. We run again. And end up back to our baseline, or set level of happiness.
This treadmill can be exhausting. And blinds us from looking at what we already have in the present moment. It can lead us to become extremely self-occupied. We become so focused on ourselves that we are not aware of the good things that surround us. And we often don't feel grateful for these things. Until, sadly they are gone.
There are times however when drastic changes to our self are important, and need to be prioritised. Like for example if you have health complications and must go through rather extreme measures to bring your body or mind back into a safer healthier state.
"Self-improvement tools should be used like bandages, only to be opened and applied when something is hurt or seriously wrong, and with the goal always being to eventually remove them."
If we are otherwise fine and this desire for greater happiness comes from our thoughts telling us that 'x' will make us happier, then perhaps we need to work on changing our state-of-mind.
Perhaps we need to stop comparing ourselves to the Joneses'. Or our social media feed to see the "amazing" things everyone else is doing.
How to step off the treadmill
Accepting our current situation
Understanding that we are OK as we are. That we don't necessarily need to "be improved". Or that we need more more more to have a better life. We most likely already have all that we need to live comfortably.
Understanding that there are highs and lows
There is an ebb and flow to life. We have rough periods when everything feels just plain shitty and inescapable. It's in these times that we remind ourselves that adversity is part of life. That there are dark moments as well as light. That we're not supposed to be on a high all the time. It's important to feel it and move through it with an understanding that it will again go up.
The more we practice doing this the less likely we are to leap into self improvement mode when faced with a difficult situation.
Appreciating what we already have
Opening our eyes to what we have right in front of us, and realising that we have some pretty amazing things already in our life. That it's fine to enjoy what we have without the need for more.
Can we raise our baseline level of happiness?
Further study still needs to be done to determine if we can in fact raise our baseline level of happiness. One thought is that performing acts of kindness and generosity can improve happiness. That selflessness helps us feel more confident and optimistic about our ability to help.
"Kind behaviours may help satisfy a basic human need for relatedness,
thereby contributing to increased happiness"
– Baumeister & Leary, 1995
My personal thoughts:
I believe that while it's not possible to feel happy all the time, we can raise our baseline level of happiness.
That it can happen when we find peace within ourselves, rather than fighting a battle within. When we accept ourselves and our life as being OK where it is. When we begin to appreciate and feel gratitude for what we already have. When we understand that we are part of something greater than ourselves. And that what we have to offer the world can help the lives of others.