Finding Happiness by Stepping Off the Hedonic Treadmill

Paracelsus Recovery
5 min readApr 6, 2022

At Paracelsus Recovery, we help the wealthiest and most successful people in the world deal with the challenges that can come with material success. We are often asked how someone who ‘has it all’ ends up struggling with mental health or addiction issues. Here we take a closer look at some of the causes and how to overcome them.

Many people strive incredibly hard to achieve professional and financial goals. But when they reach those targets, they don’t always bring the happiness they’d hoped for. A sense of euphoria is often followed by the slow but sure return of underlying worries, fears and angst. In response they go searching for another high.

The Hedonic Treadmill Paradox

This phenomenon is known as the hedonic adaptation (or hedonic treadmill). It is a metaphor for the human tendency to pursue one pleasure after another.

The theory argues that one of humankind’s greatest survival assets is our ability to adapt to our circumstances. As a result, it means we can find the most horrible environments tolerable and the most incredible surroundings boring or unfulfilling. The crux lies in our ‘baseline happiness level’, which is dependent on a unique combination of genetics and perspective.

How does this impact the ultra successful? Well, as with everybody else they are hard-wired to seek out feel-good emotions like dopamine or serotonin. Once we feel our levels of these hormones decrease, we begin to seek out the next rush of pleasure, trapping ourselves in a cycle of disappointments. What was once ‘I just want to land that job’, becomes ‘I will be happy once I am CEO’. Or what was once ‘I will be happy if I can just act and not worry about money’ becomes ‘I will feel fulfilled once I receive an Oscar’ and on it goes.

Image Description: A woman running in a red circle with three text boxes next to it. Each text box outlines what the hedonic treadmill is and why it occurs. Content is found throughout the article.

The Psychoanalytical Approach

Psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell proposed the hedonic treadmill theory in 1971. However, it first appeared in the work of French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan in the 1940s.

Lacan argued that dissatisfaction is at the core of our identity. Put simply, his theory is that babies exist in a state known as primary narcissism. This is a psychoanalytic idea that means a baby can only perceive themselves and everything around them as created by them. Because of this, they experience themselves as the most fantastic thing.

But they are also completely dependent on their primary caregiver, often their mother. They feel safe in her presence and terrified in her absence. Due to this state of primary narcissism, they respond non-verbally to her absence like this:

“Why would she leave when I am so perfect? There must be something out there that is more perfect than me. I must find that thing. If I can become it, my mother will always be with me. Then, I will be safe.”

As we grow this sticks with us and we attempt to mould ourselves into what we think we’re lacking — that thing our mother left us for. But in reality she probably got up to open the door, take a call, or go to the bathroom, so we are chasing something that doesn’t exist.

In everyday life, this shows in the strange, but commonly felt, sense of disappointment after you achieve a goal or dream. To cope with that feeling, we turn our attention to the next best thing. We focus on other goals we can achieve, hoping we’ll find that elusive satisfaction there. We usually end up in a constant state of craving which is exhausting and heightens stress levels. This is the hedonic treadmill.

For the ultra-wealthy and successful, guilt also comes into play. We have worked with clients who are tormented by it. They feel as though they have been so lucky and given so much, there must be something deeply wrong with them if they are not happy all the time.

But is it possible to break the cycle of the hedonic treadmill and find a more balanced sense of inner fulfilment.

Three Tips for Beating the Hedonic Adaptation.

i. Practice Gratitude and Meditation

Studies show that acts of self-care such as gratitude or meditation can increase your sense of inner warmth and safety. These feelings, in turn, can lead to creative insights and increased empathy levels, which naturally increase your baseline happiness level. But more than that, they allow you to focus on what you have in the present moment rather than what you lack. In doing so, you move from a place of unconscious dissatisfaction to a feeling of conscious wholeness.

ii. Lean into the Idea that Happiness Isn’t the End Goal

Try to embrace the idea that happiness is a fleeting feeling. Making joy your end goal is a bit like trying to never feel hungry or tired. It is unrealistic and you will spend a lot of time disappointed. But when we focus on creating a meaningful and healthy life, we will experience more moments of temporary joy and be more grateful for them.

iii. Try to Focus on Long-Term Meaning Rather than Short Term Satisfaction

The hedonic treadmill derives from the concept of hedonistic happiness. In other words, self-seeking pleasures. Rather than constantly striving for them, view self-seeking pleasures in the same way as junk food. Enjoyable occasionally, but fundamentally unable to provide you with the right nourishment.

To find that nourishing source of happiness, create a sense of purpose. When we feel like our work has a purpose beyond ourselves, it can help us feel more connected to other people and the world. Studies also show that acts of altruism can result in deep, long-term happiness levels.

Remember, acts of altruism do not need to be grandiose gestures. They can be as simple as calling a friend you know is lonely right now or simply showing yourself care and compassion when you feel low.

The hedonic treadmill can be particularly damaging for people living in traumatic circumstances such as an abusive relationship. In this situation the highs and lows can be even more extreme and dependent on the volatile actions of someone else. Equally, if you have experienced a trauma in the past it can intensify your pursuit of self-seeking pleasure which can lead to harmful habits forming.

Fortunately, if you are stuck on the hedonic treadmill, for any reason, professional support can help you slow it down and step off.

Paracelsus Recovery

At Paracelsus Recovery, our treatment is grounded in our core principles of empathy, pragmatism and care. We design comprehensive treatment programmes tailored to each client’s unique needs.

We work exclusively with UHNW individuals whose mental health challenges often go unnoticed due to the misconception that financial security ensures mental stability. We only treat one client at any time and provide the strictest confidentiality. Our international team of highly qualified professionals will work with you around the clock to assist your recovery, seven days a week.

We recognise that the pandemic has been difficult for many UHNW individuals. Our treatment centres are open and ready to support you. Alternatively, we can send our team to you and/or provide a fully-virtual treatment programme.

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