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.