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Reflections on the Hedonic Treadmill

by Niklas Haas on December 1, 2020

Tagged as: life, philosophy.

For some reason or other I’ve been recently thinking about the idea of hedonic adaptation, and more specifically, what it means for our quest to maximize our hedonic integral. In particular, I was drawing the conclusion that the hedonic treadmill argument suggests that living a simple, Epicurean life, in which you don’t strive for any particular moments of greatness, is the optimal way to live.1 I was perhaps even using it as an excuse for why I shouldn’t try setting lofty goals for myself, seeing as though achieving those goals won’t actually raise my happiness set point. After all, why chase a promotion, say, or a relationship, if that joy will just decay away? Why not just be content with what I have?

Upon reflection, however, I realized the true meaning behind the proverb “life is about the path, not the destination”: I made the mistake of not looking at the path integral of my life’s happiness, but obsessing over the limiting behaviour! Even if we assume the hedonic treadmill accurately describes happiness psychology, the very fact that the “adaptation” part of hedonic adaptation implies a decay as a function of time means that, at the very least, the integral of a positive action is, well, positive.

Yes, I can’t raise my happiness set point by achieving some positive affective bump, but a life in which I received that positive bump will still have a higher average happiness than one in which I did not. So by whatever favorite model of Bayesian reasoning you wish to apply, inaction is incorrect (assuming you have a reward signal, which for your sake I hope you do). Effectively, the happiness set point’s immutability is almost entirely irrelevant for the question of the correct action to take, mattering only in the sense that I should see the consequences of any action as being enveloped in time, by an impulse response that acts as some sort of decaying function.2

Incidentally, this more fuel in the fire of my stand-point that short-term thinking is not somehow inherently illogical, as many people like to seem to misconstrue. In fact, by this argument, long-term consequences of my actions can indeed be rationalized away using the hedonic treadmill, be they positive or negative. Essentially, because the hedonic envelope is saying that emotions are effectively high-passed by our brains, ground states and gradual decays don’t end up affecting our day-to-day happiness much. It makes sense when you think about it: People don’t care about, say, climate change, because it happens too slowly to feel the effects. Conversely, sudden changes in the status quo tend to trigger our most knee-jerk reactionary instincts and episodes of outrage, because we’re capable of actually feeling them.3

More to the point, however, it means that a life in which my average happiness is maximized is a life in which negative changes happen as slowly as possible, but in which I conversely fill my life with as many sudden positive changes as possible. Essentially, continued progress is required for maximizing happiness. Life of stagnation is a life of zero net-emotion. But despite my previous, rather pessimistic words on the topic, even after we reach homeostasis with the environment, we can still cheat on happiness by letting our losses happen slowly enough that we can gain renewed joy from re-fixing that problem. I’ve lost some amount of faith in my assumption that pain and suffering are somehow universal prerequisites to establishing our ability to feel pleasure,4 because that would almost directly imply that negative events can change our happiness set point. Rather, the opposite of positive emotion seems to be, well, apathy - and that apathy is inherent, built into our emotions.

Incidentally, since we’re fighting, on the opposite end, human adaptation to stimuli, the important factor to keep in mind here is that the positive outcomes need to be varied enough to keep us engaged. I guess this is the true meaning of the “variety is the spice of life” proverb: Monotony is, essentially, eventually too dull to be worth the effort. It’s why even most addictions eventually just break down. So perhaps the easiest way to optimize the course of human evolution is to just continuously forget things so we can have the joy of rediscovering entirely new aspects of life. As I am having right now.

I suspect that our “hedonic ideal” would be a life in which we’re continuously solving problems that creep up on us over a span of time long enough that we didn’t them creeping up on us. The only really strictly wrong action is inaction: ceasing to solve problems. (Which is how I extensionally define “depression”.) As one final thought, I suspect that we have a host of cognitive biases that assist us greatly in achieving this task. In particular, when we solve a particular problem that we currently care about a lot, we’re good at convincing ourselves into thinking that we’ve made a meaningful difference. Then, X months down the line, when we’ve stopped caring about that problem, we no longer notice that things decay back to old the status quo because our focus has moved elsewhere. It’s like spring cleaning. The important bit is to continuously be under the impression that you’re changing things for the better. I suddenly have a new-found appreciation for even seemingly illogical forms of activism. It doesn’t matter if your actions are irrelevant or not as long as you believe you’re accomplishing something.

  1. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to wonder what “optimal” even means here, but I’d like to imagine it has something to do with energy efficiency, i.e. maximizing “happiness per unit of work required to achieve that happiness”.↩︎

  2. Mathematically speaking, the frequency response of, say, an exponential decay, is essentially an x-axis mirrored version of that same decay graph, which looks an awful lot like a type of high-pass filter.↩︎

  3. Incidentally, the most amusing take-away here is that the only thing that really matters about climate change is phase changes. Slow-scale massive loss of ecodiversity over the course of a generation or two? Irrelevant. Sudden mass extinction within small number of years? Better do anything to avoid that outcome.↩︎

  4. I stand by my assumption, however, that the capacity to feel tremendous pain is a prerequisite for the capacity to feel tremendous joy, since I assume both scale off the same parameter, a sort of “emotional specificity” (not to be confused with neuroticism), or perhaps an “intensity of conscious experience”, which I have a nagging suspicion is just a crude proxy for “intelligence”.↩︎