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On Happiness and the Hedonic Treadmill

by Stephanie Barca

Smell that cinnamon?

As the year winds down and the days get shorter, many of us will participate in holiday traditions that can be both happy and heavier than hot crockpots. Maybe the adrenaline starts pumping the night of December 24th as plastic playsets with ninety-eight snap-in pieces have to be put together. Maybe you’re stuffing leftovers into the fridge because an event didn’t turn out as you had planned. Changes of all kinds can exert unexpected stress at a busy time.

In light of the extra expenses and opportunity costs of the season, one consideration is the “payoff” in happiness to be achieved with each effort. Ever get to January 10th and feel dazed, remembering what happened and wondering where all the fun went? That’s the hedonic treadmill adjusting back to your base pace.

Hedonic adaptation – or the hedonic treadmill - is the tendency of individuals to return to a steady mood state after a fluctuation.[1] It is adaptive; most negative experiences will end with us returning to our natural happiness quota after a period of coping. That is something to appreciate.

The opposite is true: a high mood will eventually fall. Just as you don’t appreciate the tenth bite of cake as much as the first, packing in extra festive events won’t necessarily make you happier overall, especially if you are feeling more overwhelmed than excited.

New habits can set a new pace. Research suggests that a person’s hedonic set point is significantly genetically-influenced.[2] However, we have agency. We can develop habits that positively affect our mood over the long term.

Focusing on the happiness

Hedonism and eudaimonia are two sources of pleasure important to our happiness. Hedonistic pleasure is marked by immediate enjoyment.[3] It is doing something fun for its own sake, like playing a video game or watching a movie. Eudaimonia occurs in the pursuit of meaningful, fulfilling activities like valued hobbies. Eudaimonic happiness lasts longer than hedonistic happiness, but both build resilience - a key trait to mental well-being.

Practicing mindfulness can help us to “live in the moment” and appreciate happiness as it is happening. Expressing gratitude remembers past happiness and slows hedonic adaptation, and grateful individuals have been found to have a greater capacity for happiness.

Varying sources of pleasure can also counteract our tendency to become desensitized to enjoyment. Consider the things that give you joy and keep them on hand.[4] Making plans for new experiences gives you the added boost of anticipation. Having a range of pleasurable activities and resources helps when some might be out of reach.

Focusing on the goals

It is not surprising that being more content with yourself is a way to bring up your happiness set point. Eudaimonic activities that tap into your unique skills or values create longer-lasting positivity. One way to determine your eudaimonic endeavors is to think of those times when you get lost in the experience and lose track of time. Eudaimonic happiness taps into who you are.

Pursuing your goals can increase your happiness, but the goals must be yours. Research shows that the pursuit of something in part because other people have it leads to less happiness and satisfaction when it is achieved.[5] Visioning, a process in which you crystalize your purpose and target concrete goals, can help you avoid artificial aims influenced by family, friends, or culture.[6]

The spirit of the season

Important relationships are key to long-term happiness, and those with strong support systems are the most content. Combining the pleasure of being with friends and family with altruistic acts – also shown to contribute to long-term joy – seems appropriate as the weather gets colder and the days get shorter.

With planning and intention, the holidays ahead can send us fulfilled and energized into the new year.

Stephanie Barca is a therapist with Benjamin Holmes Counseling currently accepting new clients.

[1] Psychology Today, Hedonic Treadmill, [2] Stanborough, R. , Healthline, [3] Id. [4] Yes, intentional ice cream counts. [5] Stanborough, R. , Healthline, [6] Live Bold & Bloom has an introduction to the visioning process here:

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