On the Impossibility of Happiness: Part 5, The Hedonic Treadmill

In the last post we discussed how happiness achieved is found to be fragile, transitory, and fleeting. But let's say you're lucky and happiness sticks around for awhile. Let's again grant you everything we've been talking about in Parts 1-4:

1. You know what you want.
2. You've chosen wisely.
3. You've not succumbed to short-term temptation.
4. And the happiness you've found seems relatively enduring.
It seems, then, that you've arrived. But let's pause a moment and look back at this path of frustration and failure. How many people ever get to this point? Some people get stuck at Stage 1, confused about who they are, what they are good at, and what they want out of life. Their pursuit of happiness ends up looking like random lunges in the dark. And even if people do know, with clarity and certainty, what they want they often choose the wrong things. We trade in befuddlement for disappointment.

And if we do choose well we often end up shooting ourselves in the foot. We are our own worst enemies. Perversely self-defeating creatures. Time and time again we trade in the Greater for the Lesser, mainly because the Lesser gratifies us now and we don't have to work or wait for it. So we trade in disappointment for frustration.

And if, by some miracle, we actually get to a good place in life we find that happiness is fleeting, like a mist. Too many things can come along and burst the bubble. We trade in frustration for a feeling of deflation.

Few, ever, get to where we are right now in the series. But some do. Some find themselves in a happy place and this happiness proves to be sturdy and robust. It sticks around. It doesn't burst. So we are happy for weeks, then months, then years. Seems like we've got this thing licked.

Or do we?

We are now at the very last obstacle to happiness. Let's say you've achieved happiness and find it enduring. What can happen then?


The human mind tends toward boredom. If we are repeatedly exposed to a stimuli we eventually stop responding to it. We call that habituation. We "get used to it." Generally speaking, this is a wonderful gift. Our house is close to some train tracks. So when we first moved here we kept getting woken up in the middle of the night by the trains coming through. But those trains don't wake us up anymore. We've habituated to the sound.

The gift of habituation is that it reduces your cognitive load. As your mind "gets used to" aspects of life it moves those things from the foreground to the background. It begins to take things for granted. This frees up the mind to focus on novelty and changes in the environment. Which is a good thing, from an adaptive point of view. New things in life can be either opportunities or threats. So we need to look out for them. Habituation allows these things to pop out of the environment, cognitively speaking.

Which is to say that the brain is excellent at keeping you alive but miserable at making you happy.

What habituation creates in us is insatiability. As we habituate to stuff we start seeking out something new and fresh. So we run toward this stuff only to habituate to it over time. This propels us forward, chasing something else. New car, new job, new spouse, new church, new life. We keep running but never move forward. Habituation keeps us running in place. Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill.

In short, the fact that your recently attained happiness is lasting and enduring is something that will, in the end, work against you. It brings on habituation, good things in life begin to fade into the background of our affections, drifting off to that land called Takenforgrantedness. You jump back on the treadmill...

This process isn't sudden. It's slow. An almost imperceptible fading that is often only noticeable years down the road. Affecting jobs, marriages, homes, the place you live, your whole place and situation in life.

And that's the end of the road, the final obstacle to happiness: Even if you attain happiness and it sticks around habituation will begin to take effect.

So, our final tally of frustration and defeat:
Why is Happiness Impossible?

1. We often don't know what we want.
2. And even if we did, we'd make a bad choice.
3. And even if we chose wisely we'd defeat ourselves by giving into short-term temptation.
4. And even if we achieved happiness we find it to be fragile and fleeting.
5. And even if happiness were to stick around we'd eventually habituate to it.

Emotionally, it looks like this:

1. Befuddlement.
2. Disappointment.
3. Frustration.
4. Deflation.
5. Boredom.
So now you know why happiness is impossible.

That said, I'm a bit fearful about leaving you in this very dark place. So next week I'll come back to post on something different:
On the Possibility of Happiness
Would that cheer you up?

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