Money, Health, and the Hedonic Treadmill

In Articles, Articles: Kansas City Office, Articles: Salt Lake City Office by Scott Dougan

Much has been written about the real or perceived links between money and happiness. In a nutshell, once basic needs are met, more money doesn’t strongly correlate to more happiness. But what about health? Does having more money equate to improved health and wellness? Again, there can be a link, but it’s not a universal one. What is fascinating about all of these connections is how something called the hedonic treadmill impacts all of us.

Humans (that’s us) are a very adaptable creature. When something in our environment changes, we’re quite good at adapting to it. And while some environmental changes result in direct and immediate shifts in our behavior, say, a rainstorm prompts us to grab an umbrella, other shifts have a sneakier impact on us. One of these sneaky adaptive traits we have involves something psychologists like to call the hedonic treadmill, a theory that suggests that humans have a tendency to return to a relatively stable level of happiness or subjective wellbeing, despite changes in their circumstances or external conditions.

So, while we’re out here reaching for umbrellas to stay dry in the rain, our brains are busy quietly processing our new financial circumstances and re-tuning our happiness levels all the while. That big raise at work? It feels great, then not too long after, it’s just normal to us. What’s next? The beautiful new SUV in the driveway? Just another fixture in our life in a month. Can we get a pool now? Why does this happen? The hedonic treadmill, the moving track under our feet (or in our brain), keeps us racing toward a new happiness input that keeps a real and lasting happiness boost just out of reach.  It’s maddening.

There’s a real risk that the impact of the hedonic treadmill can be felt in our health and well-being. If we’re not aware of these forces acting upon us, our tendencies toward greater ‘success’ can keep us working longer hours at jobs we hate, can cause us to pursue more possessions which take focus and energy from other areas like working out and eating well, and real depression can set in when we constantly compare ourselves to others. This may be why more and more people are seeking mental health care; seeing others appear wealthier than us in our social media feeds leads us to pursue more for ourselves, while falling victim to a hedonic treadmill that’s running faster and faster, keeping greater happiness just out of reach.

I’m not going to suggest that being aware of these forces will instantly make us immune to them. Again, we’re very adaptable, us humans. But what may help in our fight against feeling less and less happiness with each added pursuit and possession is simply seeing it for what it is, an adaptation that can be harmful to our health. And if you’d like to live out your remaining days a bit happier than you have in the past, you may be wise to question your motivations for adding more stuff to your life. For if we know the new car won’t bring us lasting happiness and fulfillment, is it possible to delay it or skip it altogether? If we know the new promotion will bring us more money but a lot more stress, is it within the realm of possibility to not take that job? These are very personal questions and very threatening to a world that seems to want us to be bled dry by worldly pursuits. The key though, is to start with awareness.

If the hedonic treadmill is more than just a theory, and our real identities are more than just the sum of our stuff, then maybe, just maybe we can get ahead of these forces by wishing to. By striving to not strive as much, maybe it’s possible to savor each success a bit longer and even, dare I say it, not worry as much about being as ‘successful’ as we think we were taught to be. After all, nobody else can manage your life for you, and nobody else can grant you happiness if we all know that the treadmill is running, making that hit of happiness fade. And if a goal of ours is to improve our health, even by just a bit, we could trade a few hours wasted on one psychological treadmill and hop on the treadmill at the gym instead.

Investment Advisory Services offered through Elevated Capital Advisors, LLC. An SEC Registered Investment Advisor.

This newsletter/commentary should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the authors as of the date of publication and are subject to change. Content provided herein is for informational purposes only and should not be used or construed as investment advice or a recommendation regarding the purchase or sale of any security. There is no guarantee that the statements, opinions, or forecasts provided herein will prove to be correct. Past performance may not be indicative of future results. There is no guarantee that any investment plan or strategy will be successful. All references to potential future developments or outcomes are strictly the views and opinions of the author and in no way promise, guarantee, or seek to predict with any certainty what may or may not occur in various economies and investment markets.