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The Hedonic Treadmill: Why Your Clients Will Never be Satisfied

Like a regular treadmill, the hedonic treadmill leaves you exhausted and in the same spot you started

Two people running on a treadmill

Have you ever accomplished something that you worked so hard on, only to be disappointed with how fleeting the happiness feels? What about coming back home from an amazing vacation, only to immediately return to the dullness of the real world? Or, on the contrary, has something bad ever happened that you quickly adjusted to? This is what it feels like to be on the hedonic treadmill, always ending up in the same place where you started. Every high comes back down, every low comes back up.

For CLCI Live we discussed with Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), Jerome LeDuff Jr (MCLC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Lisa Finck (PCC), and Jen Long (MCPC) the hedonic treadmill and how coaches and clients can ultimately gain long term satisfaction (something quite different from happiness).

What does Hedonic mean?

Hedonic is the root for terms we’re already pretty familiar with: hedonism and hedonist. Hedonic means “relating to or considering in terms of pleasant/unpleasant sensations.”

Hedonism, while often used in a negative light to describe self-indulgent pleasure seekers, is the philosophy of maximizing the pleasures while decreasing the suffering in life. Hedonists are those who prioritize and are motivated by the pursuit of happiness, pleasure, and good feelings.

That doesn’t sound so bad; being happy in life is a good thing. So why does the hedonic treadmill get a bad reputation?

What is the hedonic treadmill?

Man pushing rock up hill
I can't imagine that he's happy.

When you’re running on a treadmill, you’re in this constant motion without getting anywhere. It’s a cyclical pursuit with no definite end. Similarly, when we achieve a goal, we feel elated for a short while, but eventually we return to our baseline temperament. Then we pick a new goal to achieve, and on and on and on the cycle goes. Regardless of the goal achieved, our baseline happiness remains the same.

This works in both directions. A study of people who experienced extreme highs and lows (winning the lottery, becoming paraplegic from a traumatic accident) revealed that 2 years later, most participants still returned to their baseline happiness level. While these extreme events might take longer, in the end, it’s still a never ending cycle.

This can be a benefit as it shows that as humans, we’re resilient and antifragile enough to bounce back from extreme trauma and endure through difficult times.

The hedonic treadmill does have its limitations. Some instances that will permanently lower the baseline are the death of a child and chronic unemployment. Inmates in prison will also have a lower baseline for the duration of their sentence.

Each of these cases involve a loss or extreme lack of purpose—as humans (including our clients), we need purpose to maintain our baseline happiness.

How do you raise your baseline happiness?

One of the few known way to increase one’s baseline happiness is by doing good for others and living an altruistic lifestyle. This isn’t some hot fix solution that you can use at will. You won’t increase your baseline by working at a soup kitchen one time. It has to be your purpose, your drive, for it to increase your general happiness.

There’s also no way to take a shortcut to it. Our purpose has to come from within ourselves, not from what others tell us to do. We need to feel agency in our own lives.

As a coach, you can’t take a client who’s searching for their purpose and just tell them to go help other people. For one thing, they’re not coming to that decision on their own so it’s not going to work—they’ll be stuck on the hedonic treadmill working towards a goal that doesn’t bring them joy. For another, telling your client what to do isn’t coaching them.

Our job as coaches is to gather information our client gives us and filter it through a coaching lens, with no judgments or advice adulterated into it. We want to get to the root of what drives our clients and what motivation they have for finding their purpose. And even accepting that their ultimate purpose may not be to achieve long term happiness.

Coaching the Hedonic Treadmill

Let’s be honest, the hedonic treadmill is good for business. As people accomplish their goals, the hedonic treadmill means they will always come up with more goals to complete. Even if clients leave, there will always be more people wanting something and needing help to get there.

So, we know that personal, long term satisfaction isn’t going to last unless it’s from altruistic actions. How do we help our clients feel content with normal and not just the elation from achieving their goals?

We can help them learn to enjoy their baseline. This is a form of mindfulness where we seek out micro-happiness. We acknowledge the little wins so that happiness at a sustainable level is a good and enjoyable thing.

As clients complete their goals and return to baseline, they might begin to feel hopeless or lost since they can’t hold on to the elation of success. This is a blessing in disguise as it can cause a new line of questioning and coaching for the client where they can really analyze what it is they want in life that would give them long term satisfaction.

What is happiness?

One definition of happiness is the absence of suffering. Others can really only describe how it feels. Many others view happiness as a spectrum of emotions, ranging from a quiet contentment to complete euphoria.

What many don’t consider is that we often experience happiness paired with other emotions. We can be both elated and terrified—take roller coasters as an example. Both in grief and in joy during a celebration of life at one’s passing. Both holding contempt and reveling in victory as you enact revenge (not a recommended client goal).

When we think of the hedonic treadmill we should view the measuring of happiness and the accompanying emotions and context. Not all forms of happiness are created equal.

Short Term vs. Long Term Happiness

When faced with the choice between short term pleasure and long term happiness, we rarely choose the long term happiness. Why do we make this choice?

Simply put, long term gratification is not guaranteed. With its lack of immediacy, we’re left hoping it works out. If you skip the short term that’s right in front of you, the long term possibility could easily disappear too.

Unlike long term happiness, short term pleasure feels like it’s in our control. It’s almost always guaranteed and potentially will sustain us until the next opportunity for short term pleasure. While this might be sustainable, it’s similar to living paycheck to paycheck—not an ideal way to live.

When coaching, it’s important to frame the client’s short term goals in relation to their long term aspirations. If there is a misalignment, this provides an opportunity for a judgment free exploration about what these short term goals do mean.

What does hedonic adaptation mean to my experience as a coach?

Coaching session between two women

As coaches, we’re also prone to jumping on the hedonic treadmill.

“If I just had four clients, I’ll feel like I’ve succeeded in my business.” Meanwhile, four turns into five. Five turns into ten. And before you know it ten turns into 10,000.

Just like our clients, each success will slowly grow stale and we’ll return to our baseline. That’s why every successful coach has a purpose. There has to be a greater reason to be a coach that goes beyond the money and the number of clients. And as we know now, coaching is an ultimately altruistic profession. We partner with clients for their own benefit and so that they may reach their highest potentials.

Hopping Off the Treadmill

In order to get out of the endless loop of chasing happiness, we need to focus on finding satisfaction in the movement and the work towards goals instead of just the achievement. This can be helped by finding ways to celebrate the small wins we experience every day—you get used to celebrating the work and it becomes a habit.

We should also recognize that happiness doesn’t mean we’re not also suffering sometimes. We all have complaints and stressors in life that come during times of happiness. Happiness doesn’t equal perfection. Enjoy the flawed experience of life and let the flows highlight the better moments.


Thank you,

Lisa Finck, Brooke Adair Walters, Jerome LeDuff Jr, Anthony Lopez, and Jen Long!

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