The Hedonic Treadmill - Our Favorite Psychological Concept
The Hedonic Treadmill is our absolute favorite psychological concept.
This idea explores the cyclical nature of human happiness and helps inform the science of our emotional well-being. And, of course, it's applicable to athletes.
To put it briefly, the Hedonic Treadmill suggests that when our actions illicit emotional highs or lows, we will experience the opposite emotion shortly after, as a way of returning to our happiness baseline.
We like to visualize this as an oscillating wave. Any action we take immediately moves us above or below baseline. And before long, we experience a reactionary, equal & opposite movement in happiness to return us to baseline.
This concept has far-reaching implications, particularly for those seeking fulfillment through challenging endeavors (like running & training).
A Brief History
The term "Hedonic Treadmill" finds its roots in psychological research dating back to the 1970s. Pioneered by psychologists Brickman and Campbell, the concept gained traction as a lens through which to understand our perpetual pursuit of happiness. The idea emerged from the observation that major life events, both positive and negative, had a short-lived impact on an individual's overall happiness.
The Treadmill and Athletes
Now, let's delve into why the Hedonic Treadmill is not just an abstract theory but a practical framework for athletes.
The first chart shown in this article illustrates that immediate happiness is followed by reactionary sadness, to re-achieve baseline.
Think about this in example form - have you ever skipped a run to instead eat chips on the couch? We have. It makes us happy... immediately. So what follows? Perhaps feelings of sadness, which we may characterize as regret, aimlessness, or boredom. And to be clear, that is not a bad thing. It's just how life is.
But of course, the opposite is also true. Have you ever made the tough decision to complete a difficult run while it was raining or extremely cold, despite not wanting to? We have. It makes us somewhat unhappy...immediately. And of course, we wind up ecstatic, energetic, and proud that we completed a difficult run.
Now let's bring back the chart from earlier, but flip it.
Starting to make more sense now isn't it? We'll be happy, and we'll be said. But which will you choose first? We can even think of this like investing in ourselves to do difficult things, knowing that the payoff is ultimately happiness later.
Athlete Specific Questions
Can we raise our baseline?
Yep! Seems like that may be the case. The act of pushing physical limits, enduring challenges, and achieving milestones in running contributes to a sustained elevation of baseline happiness. Runners often find themselves experiencing greater overall life satisfaction, thanks to the cumulative effect of these positive endeavors.
This is somewhat unproven. But we at LRC believe there is both a time for science & facts, as well as anecdote and feeling. Do you believe your life has overall been happier as a result of running? We do. No science needed.
Does this explain mental health too?
Yep (again)! Running has been a powerful ally for those grappling with mental instability. The rhythmic motion, the focus required, and the release of endorphins can provide a stabilizing force, offering respite from the challenges of daily life.
Embracing the Treadmill in the New Year
As we step into the new year, armed with resolutions and aspirations, the Hedonic Treadmill serves as a psychological guide. It encourages us to embrace challenges, set ambitious goals, and recognize the enduring impact these pursuits can have on our well-being.
We as runners will be happy, and we will be unhappy. There's no changing that. But we do get to decide which comes first.