If you can relate to the proverbial hamster on a wheel in your quest to have a bigger house, or nicer clothes, science can explain why.
The “hedonic treadmill” is what psychologists call our innate desire for bigger, better pleasures—like a bigger house, or splashier car—each time we get a raise or bonus.
But there’s literally a catch to this phrase: Those same psychologists know that acquiring these trophies won’t make a meaningful blip on our happiness radar.
What Our Genes Have to Do With It
In this “unfortunate feature of human psychology, you keep running, but stay in the same place, happiness-wise,” explains Julia Galef, president and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality. “We’ve been shaped by the forces of evolution,” she says “and we’ve inherited our ancestors’ insatiability.”
Why were they hell-bent on acquisition, even back in the my-cave-is-bigger-than-your-cave days? “Our genes ‘want’ us to pursue more and more resources, and status, because those things help our genes spread to the next generation,” she explains. “But our genes don’t particularly care whether we enjoy those hard-won prizes once we get them.”
Put another way: Which of our ancestors do you think were most successful? The ones who sat around the fire, sighing and were content with their lives? Or the ones who were never satisfied with what they had and always chasing more wealth, power and status? The second group would dominate—which means we’re their descendants, and we’ve inherited their tastes for more, bigger, better.
A More Modern Take on Happiness
It’s the age-old question: Can a bigger house really make us happier? And the answer is, it depends.
“If a bigger house means you have the space to do things you value, like work from home or comfortably entertain a large family or group of friends, the increased space could bring happiness,” says executive coach Syble Solomon, founder of LifeWise Strategies/Money Habitudes. But, she adds, it’s a matter of perspective: “If you don’t have friends to entertain, or you don’t follow through with a home-based business, and you were using ‘lack of space’ as your excuse, now you’ll be even unhappier.”
It’s filling that large home with people you love and sharing special moments together that separates lasting fulfillment from the fleeting kind. And even then, it’s not the house that’s delivering the happy. It’s the experiences and the people—two components Galef says are essential to the happiness equation.
Experts agree that you can move the needle on the happiness meter by being more thoughtful about how you use your money and time.
One way to do that is to consider three questions before every purchase you make. You can even review your budget from last year to decide the things that really brought you lasting joy—and those that didn’t quite live up to the hedonic hype.
1. Does It Make Me Feel Good About Who I Am?
“We get pleasure and joy when we do something that makes us proud of who we are,” Solomon says. That can be a sensory experience like getting a pedicure, attending a play or sharing dessert with a loved one. It can also be non-monetary: “That can be anything from taking the time to notice another person’s pleasure or pain and be with them in the moment,” says Solomon. “It can be saying ‘no’ to others and making the space for you to say ‘yes’ to yourself.”
While on the never-ending treadmill, we tend to knock out obligations—and miss out on purely pleasurable moments that last longer than instant gratification.
2. Does It Have Meaning?
Most people, say the experts, find satisfaction in being part of a community and giving of themselves. Whether through volunteering or joining a like-minded club or organization (think: anything from ski lessons to the church of your choice), meaningful and memorable interactions contribute to longer-term euphoria.
“Again and again, research has shown that spending your time with other people—and spending your money on other people—is great for your happiness levels,” Galef says. “Also, part of being a social creature is that moods are contagious, so keep that in mind when you decide who to spend your time with.”
3. Does It Engage or Challenge Me?
As Edgar Allan Poe put it, “the best things in life make you sweaty.” But don’t take that too literally. You might find rapture in working puzzles, playing the piano, knitting, golfing or mastering any new hobby. No matter what your happy activity is, the clock will all but disappear while you partake of it. “Part of the fun of life is getting so involved in something that we lose our sense of time and are totally engaged,” Solomon says.
It’s a state positive psychologists have labeled as “flow,” and new research shows that when we’re in it, our brain releases all sorts of neurochemicals correlated to reward, satisfaction and joy.
So, next time you’re deciding whether to shell out for yet another sweater, or save up for your next vacation, consider which is likely to have a more lasting impact.