{Big Ideas} The “Hedonic Treadmill” and Middle Age

Pondering the Hedonic Treadmill at Midlife | Pamela Price for RedWhiteandGrew.com
Photo credit: Pamela Price

“I need some sort of peak life experience to dislodge me from this forty-something funk I’m in.” That’s the gist of what I confided to my friend, “J,”  a few weeks ago. At the time, she and I were commiserating about the middling nature of middle age, the piling on of upsets, hardships, and losses.

Simply saying those words was a relief, as if in admitting that I felt stuck I’d begun to dislodge myself from my unhappy place. Even better was J’s swift reply: “Me, too.” Something about our exchange seemed significant, telling — like together we’d stumbled on an essential thing.

As I’m prone to do when I think I’ve stumbled upon a Deep Human Insight (TM), I hit Google for validation. While I don’t remember the exact words I input into the search field, articles mentioning the phrase “hedonic treadmill” in the title came back.

“What the…?” I muttered.

A few articles into the topic, I was enamored with this decades-old positive psychology theory. Also known as “hedonic adaptation,” the hedonic treadmill is used to describe how we humans return to a happiness set point (more precisely a happiness set range) no matter what happens to us in life.

Win the lottery? Ride the high while you can because it’ll end. Suffer a tragedy? Chin up, buttercup, because odds are good you’ll rebound. Basically, it’s a lot like riding a pony on a merry-go-round, with the horse getting stuck in the middle for a couple of spins while the brass ring glistens just out of reach.

For some, our happiness range is a little higher; for others, a little lower. But, generally speaking, whatever befalls us – for better or worse, we drift back (“habituate”) to our personal happiness set range. (Your mileage may vary, obviously, if you’re prone to depression or, in my case, anxiety. Some of us need a little help from time to time getting and staying in a healthy zone.)

After reading up on the hedonic treadmill for half an hour, I stared at at my computer screen and wondered: “What does it mean for our experience of well-being at mid-life?”

The more I’ve read about and pondered the idea of the treadmill, the more convinced I’ve become that culture and biology conspire to front load the major highs of life into our youth: first kiss, first car, graduation(s), first marriage, first home, first child, and career achievements. Typically these things come as reward for personal diligence, long-term commitment to delayed gratification, and kindness to (or at least civil cooperation with) others. As we leap from achievement to achievement, we get a jolt–a buzz even–from the sheer excitement that comes with growth and demonstrable success.

Later, as we age into our fifth decade, the distance grows between those highs while the lows begin to settle in, often uninvited: divorce, death, illness, job loss, and so forth. Many of these things come through no fault of our own, but our experience of them can be aggravated by a sense of isolation we encounter as we move to the margins of a youth and achievement-obsessed culture.

Looking at mid-life through the lens of the hedonic treadmill theory, is it any surprise that we forty-somethings struggle at times with feelings of vague sadness? Is it any shock that we see ourselves and our friends pursue unhealthy relationships or numbing behaviors like drinking too much wine or, in my own case, eating too much sugar?

No wonder J and I recognized in ourselves and one another that desire to get another hit of peak happiness.

Fortunately, from what I’ve gleaned since that first Google search, there are things we can do to elevate our position within our happiness range. They’re the kinds of self-care activities that we all know we should do but that we tend to let fall to the side as we juggle the burdens of midlife. I’m talking about our engaging in mindfulness work (or prayer), maintaining healthy diets, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and nurturing healthy personal and professional relationships.

Frankly, however, just learning about the hedonic treadmill and coming to regard it as a normal part of the ebb-and-flow of life, I’ve found more spring in my step. For me, this discovery was a huge cognitive reframing of middle age.  In the wake of the revelation, I rejoined our gym, rolled out my yoga map, greatly reduced my sugar consumption, overhauled my blog’s design to reflect the kind of writing I most want to do, and dusted off an old passion project (about Texas history!) that had grown dusty.

Let’s see if by working on these things I can move up a notch or too in my personal happiness range. Seems like a good summer project.

Besides, what have I got to lose but the mid-life blues?

Explore More:

• For your convenience, I’ve assembled a selection of books that have helped me reshape my own thinking about happiness at mid-life. Some of these are books I owned but others are new to me within the last few weeks–yet all of them tried and tested by yours truly. You’ll find them waiting for you on  virtual shelf  in my Amazon store. (Yes, as an Amazon affiliate, I get a few pennies if you purchase something.) Note, too, that for over a year I’ve been fiddling with a dialectical behavior therapy planner that fits with the “cures” for those of us stuck on the hedonic treadmill. Highly recommended.

In case you missed it, last week I wrote this post on middle-aged daughters who shoulder the burdens of eldercare. It’s on my new Medium page. I also have a crazy, random story about how I lost and found my bag in Heathrow airport up over on LinkedIn.

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5 comments

  1. Thanks so much for explaining the “Hedonic Treadmill”. This article resounded with me because I’ve just recently returned to my “state of happiness”. It’s taken me quite a long time to get back to my happy place, but this “high” was worth the wait. After raising toddlers for a while, I realized that doing something for myself is what I really needed to make me happy. Although it’s been stressful and somewhat difficult to make it happen, getting back to myself and my needs as an individual have really brought me so much joy… I’m hoping to stay at this point for as long as I possibly can, and hope you get back to your happy place quick, too.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. Entering mid-forties while providing home hospice care for my mother, and homeschooling four children between 12 and 2 (currently preparing the 12-year-old daughter for 8th grade in public school and we’ll see how that goes!), has brought me to similar needs for a way to sustainability, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

    Turning my back on what had become some bad habits (in my case, the wine, rather than the sugar) and renewing a commitment to listen to my body as it warns me that middle age isn’t for sissies, has been somewhat empowering, but also a bit discouraging, since that commitment doesn’t get the same results it did when I was younger.

    Meanwhile, dialectic behavior therapy is my best ally, for myself as well as my oldest son, who has added early puberty to his asynchrony, sensitivities, emotional volatility, and longstanding tendency toward a dour outlook on life. On the bright side, he and I share a passion for symmetry, patterns, and all things spatial that both of us would otherwise feel lonesome in.

    I plan to have my 12-year-old daughter, who is cutting wisdom teeth and going through existential and self-identity crises rather younger than is the norm, read your article, and I think both of us will benefit from your recommendations in your Amazon store.

    Thank you so much for sharing your insights, discoveries, and struggles over the years, and being a light to others.

    • Thank you, Meg. That means a lot. And I think the more of us who talk about DBT as a great resource for this phase of life–or anytime someone is getting hit from all directions, the better. I’m glad you are passing that tool on to your son. Much love, Pamela

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