Hedonic Stairway

“In the pursuit of happiness, the stairway is an illusion and the steps dreams, that convince us that more happiness in just steps away. In reality, it functions more like a treadmill, keeping you in place despite a lifetime of paces.”

TASK AT HAND: This week I’m thinking about the hedonic treadmill theory, which I usually refer to as the hedonic stairway. Simply surmised, the idea is that the pursuit of happiness is akin to a person walking on a treadmill. You keep walking, but stay in the same place. More steps does not equate to more happiness.

The “Hedonic Treadmill” was coined by Brickman and Campbell in their article “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society” (Brickman; Campbell, 1971, Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. New York: Academic Press. pp. 287–302. in M. H. Apley, ed., Adaptation Level Theory: A Symposium, New York: Academic Press).

In this seminal paper, the authors describe the tendency of people to keep a stable baseline level of happiness despite positive or negative external events. From the work of Brickman and Campbell, they interviewed 22 lottery winners and 29 paraplegics with the aim of assessing change in happiness levels after the life changing events of winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed. The authors found that the group of lottery winners reported being similarly happy before and after the event, and expected to have a similar level of happiness in a couple of years. They found that the paraplegics reported having a higher level of happiness in the past, a lower level of happiness at the time of the study but – surprisingly – they also expected to have similar levels of happiness in a couple of years.

What can we take away from these results?

For the most part, individuals can expect to have the same baseline level of happiness irrespective of quite drastic, dramatic and different life events. The effect of a large monetary gain had no effect on baseline level of happiness for both the present and the future. In the paraplegic group, although there was an initial decrease in happiness, they too expected to maintain or return to the same baseline level of happiness for the future.

How can we use this for our development and strategies?

Awareness that, at least with respect to the pursuit of happiness, more steps you take on the hedonic stairway, will not grant you any additional happiness. Striving for that next promotion, a new car, or even great personal gain or loss, does not seem to alter your baseline level of happiness. Does this mean we should avoid these or strive for less? No, but it does call for awareness for why we pursue certain stations in life. More steps does not equal more happiness so be cognizant of your pace, journey and destination.


MEDICINE & MACULA: For those who know me, you are aware of my squash enthusiasm (although obsession might be a better descriptor…). This week, the WHOOP Performance Optimization System featured me in their The Locker feature.

Thanks very much to WHOOP and Mark Van Deusen for their interest! I don’t have any financial ties to the WHOOP system but believe, wholeheartedly, it is the best fitness tracker available for the serious sports enthusiast.

You can read the story here.

Stay active!


GRATIS: “Yes, there are two paths you can go by. But in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.” Jimmy Page & Robert Plant


My best to you,

David Almeida


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