Soli Deo Gloria

Hedonic Treadmill

Photo Creds: Sven Mieke

Imagine your family buys a new car. It is pristinely new and scintillating in the bright light of day. Equipped with many new bells and whistles in which technology has improved drastically, it is much the upgrade. Because it is new, you don’t want to get it dirty. You drive it carefully. This works for a few days, but how about a few weeks, or even a few months? You’ve gotten used to it, where you are more or less at the same level of happiness before getting the new car.

This phenomenon is similar to buying happy meals as a kid. I used to remember how excited and cheerful I was when I got a new shiny toy to play with. Unfortunately, as a family, we never bought enough happy meals for me to collect the full series of toys that they made. The happy meal certainly delivered what it was advertised to do. It legitimately does provide happiness. The catch is, however, is that the happiness that happy meals provide is fleeting, where it is only a matter of time we stop playing with the toy. What was new and shiny just 10 minutes ago is not as new and shiny anymore – and we never touch it again.

As we grow up, we don’t grow out of happy meals. The happy meals for adults don’t change other than the fact that they contain much bigger and more expensive toys.

As humans, we tend to observe the world in relative terms. For example, let’s say we have two different lightbulbs. We can tell whether one lightbulb is brighter than the other, but we find it very difficult to estimate the exact brightness of each lightbulb and be able to provide an exact value in lumens. Moreover, what we observe in the world is always in reference to its surrounding context. For instance, initially, we go out to eat once a week, then we start going out to eat every day of the week. Initially, we undoubtedly enjoy this increased lifestyle. However, the novelty of going out to eat every day will eventually become the norm. It becomes no less different to eating out once every week. The downside of this is that we would eventually go into debt as it is a lifestyle that is very difficult to sustain.

In Psychology, they have labelled this phenomenon as the ‘hedonic treadmill‘ or ‘hedonic adaptation’ – being the observation that humans tend to return to an equilibrium state of happiness despite significant positive or negative events in one’s life. The phrase itself – ‘hedonic treadmill’ – does sound quite depressing, however, it is not all bad. This phenomenon is more so a double-edged sword, having its pros and cons.

The obvious con is that there is the temptation to engage in higher and higher degrees of hedonism. To extend the metaphor of the term, a higher degree of pleasures/positive events we have in life can be made akin to the treadmill accelerating towards a higher constant velocity. As humans, we are supple runners – being able to match and adapt to the speed of the treadmill quite quickly. We have successfully acclimatised to a new ‘hedonic level’. Where the danger lies, is this new lifestyle becomes the norm. So, we engage in new levels of spending and experiences to find greater novelty. The treadmill becomes faster and faster and who knows how long our body can keep up.

Yet, there is a pro to this phenomenon as well. A prime example of this would be the lockdowns that have been occurring worldwide. In 2020, Melbourne had a continuous lockdown for 4 months. It may have been an existence in which was painfully void of physical human interaction, but one does get used to it. The treadmill decelerates to a lower constant velocity, where because we are adaptable, we naturally are able to cope. In the monotony of staying home, one realises the more simple things in life that we may not otherwise realise out of lockdown. The fact that one has a roof over one’s head, and that you are reading this post shows that you have access to an internet connection. There are not many places on earth that one can just drink water out of the tap as in Melbourne. Where in the absence of human connection, one truly understands how important human connection is – that it should never be taken for granted.

Qohelet, the person speaking of himself in Ecclesiastes speaks on the vanity of increasing his hedonic level to bizarre proportions:

1 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 ESV

At the end of the day, the pleasures of this earth are fleeting and ephemeral as the wind. In our modern society with the inundation of marketing and social media, we are fed the notion that more is always better. That we should eat more food, visit more places, do more and experience more. However, this is not the case – where less is better than too much. For most things in life, there is a sweet spot – a satiation point. If pleasures in and of themselves are meaningless, it does not mean that pleasures can’t be enjoyed in moderation, because the absence of pleasure would be quite the depressing life.

As such, the first few bites of a meal are great. The best outcome of the meal is when we are comfortably full. Any more than this, we delve into buffet territory, where indulging more than we need can make us sick. As the young girl in the famous children’s story muses:

“Not too hot, too cold. Just right.”





The Famous 21


  1. Great post – your writing is really improving! The Ecclesiastes passage is one of my favourites, thanks for sharing.

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