How to Get Off the Hedonic Treadmill

“Is getting rich worth it?”

That was the question posed on Quora.

One of the anonymous people who responded claimed to have made $15 million in his mid-20s when he sold a tech startup. He wrote a lengthy response, but here is the part that stood out to me:

The next thing you need to understand about money is this: all of the things you picture buying, they are only worthwhile to you because you cannot afford them (or have to work really hard to acquire them). Maybe you have your eye on a new Audi — once you can easily afford it, it just doesn’t mean as much to you anymore.

Everything is relative, and you are more or less powerless to that. Yes, the first month you drive the Audi, or eat in a fancy restaurant, you really enjoy it. But then you sort of get used to it. And then you are looking towards the next thing, the next level up. And the problem is that you have reset your expectations, and everything below that level doesn’t get you quite as excited anymore.

This happens to everyone. Good people can maintain perspective, actively fight it, and stay grounded. Worse people complain about it and commit general acts of douchebaggery. But remember this: it would happen to you, too, even though you might not think so. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.

Most people hold the illusion that if only they had more money, their life would be better and they would be happier. Then they get rich, and that doesn’t happen, and it can throw them into a serious life crisis.

If you’re part of the middle class, you have just as many opportunities to do with your life what you want of it. If you’re not happy now, you won’t be happy because of money.

Whether you’re rich or not, make your life what you want it to be, and don’t use money as an excuse. Go out there, get involved, be active, pursue your passion, and make a difference.

When the author talks about “resetting expectations,” he is basically summarizing the idea of “hedonic adaptation,” also called the “hedonic treadmill.”

We all have a fairly constant happiness level. Positive changes (like newfound wealth) will only temporarily increase happiness. Eventually (weeks, months), we’ll return to whatever our normal level of happiness is.

I always try to live my life the way I would live it if I had significantly more money. That way, if I ever come into money, my lifestyle won’t change much.

The key is knowing what things or activities make you happy. I have found that “things” don’t affect my happiness much. Once you have a decent home and a reliable car, nicer things have only an incremental and transient effect on your happiness.

I personally find more happiness in my daily activities and how I’m able to spend my time. For me, that’s reading, writing, family trips, and recreational activities like hiking, camping, cycling, and snowboarding.

So I try to do these things regularly.

Anyway, it’s a good mental exercise to answer the question:

“How would I spend my days if I had no debts and had enough money that I never needed to work for a wage again? What would I do?”

Because you’re still going to have to do something while all your friends and family are busy working jobs to maintain their middle-class lifestyles.

And if you can answer the question above, then you already have the raw information you need to “make your life what you want it to be” — just as the author suggests.

-Ryan M. Healy

P.S. Hat tip to Srikumar S. Rao. I wouldn’t have come across this discussion if he hadn’t shared it in a private forum I’m a part of.

7 Comments

  • Elle

    August 21, 2013

    Great post, and what a great piece of advice from the author. So to answer the question… I’d cut back a few hours at the office (my day job) so I could get to the gym during daylight hours, go for longer walks, and have a bit more time to work on my own business.

    • Ryan M. Healy

      August 22, 2013

      All good stuff. I try to get to the gym 4x a week between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Going during the middle of the day is my favorite time to go. (I’ve tried early mornings, mid-day, and evenings.)

      Long walks are another great activity. My wife and I try to walk with the kids in the evenings 4-5x a week during the summers. Fall/winter/spring is hit or miss depending on the weather.

      Thanks for your comment, Elle!

  • John Thomas

    August 21, 2013

    Two words, Ryan: Freakin’ brilliant.

    Thanks,

    John

  • Jim

    August 22, 2013

    The one thing that money does buy that’s worth having is time. Enough money to never have to work again, or worry about the bills, is the ability to buy your life back. It doesn’t then matter what you do with it as long as it was your choice.

    Most people live paycheck to paycheck and their life is wasted working to buy stuff they don’t need as imagined compensation for the life they do live. The Man’s got you both ways: striving to work for less value than you produce, and then spending what you do get on things you’re made to feel you have to have or “you’re a loser”.

  • Rodney Freeman

    August 22, 2013

    Absolutely excellent post. That story on Quora appears to have been picked up by the mods and is moving into ‘best of’. So it should be!

    Keep up the great blog posts Ryan.