At the 4th European Conference on Positive Psychology in Croatia, Randy Larsen, Psychology Professor at Washington University in St Louis, presented on ‘Overcoming the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’. In fact, the session focussed more on explaining what the Hedonic Treadmill is and how it operates rather than on presenting loads of new ideas on how to beat it…Maybe he ran out of time, a common occurrence during the conference.
So what is the Hedonic Treadmill exactly? In short, it’s the idea that we humans adapt to pleasurable circumstances, events and experiences – which explains why the joy you feel from getting that sought-after pay rise, new contract, dress or car lasts only for a few hours, days or weeks. We simply get used to the positive emotion. The novelty wears off.
What makes the Hedonic Treadmill so interesting is that we adapt to negative circumstances, events and experiences differently; here, there is something called a negativity bias at work, which means that bad events carry more weight than good events; so for example, losing £50 is a more negative experience that finding £50 is a positive one.
Larsen’s research comparing good and bad events shows that bad ones decay more slowly, i.e. negative emotions take longer to wear off. Said another way, we adapt to positive events more quickly than we do to negative ones. No wonder so many people get addicted to shopping – they’re forever trying to increase the duration of positive emotion, without realising that it will just keep wearing off.
One explanation for this may be that negative emotions last longer for evolutionary reasons. Thousands of years ago we couldn’t have afforded to spend too much of our time caught up in the positive emotions associated with having fun and enjoying ourselves when there might be a sabre-toothed tiger coming round the corner – we needed to be ready to deal with it (‘fight or flight’). For our own survival, it was necessary that negative emotions lasted longer than positive ones.
So, where does this leave us, bearing in mind that millions of Westerners seems to be running round the Hedonic (Shopping) Treadmill every day? Unfortunately Larsen didn’t suggest any concrete answers, other than perhaps Positive Psychologists need to be investigating ways to accelerate the adaptation to negative events and experiences, rather than looking for new interventions to increase positive emotion. I think he has a good point, don’t you?