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Do you Need to Climb off the Hedonic Treadmill to be Truly Happy?

Rule #1 of life. Do what makes you happy - unknown

As a therapeutic life coach, my clients often talk about wanting to be truly happy.

For many, it seems, happiness is elusive and transient.

For others, the pursuit of happiness can lead them into making real errors of judgement and sheer bad choices.

Many clients say ‘if only I could win the lottery, that’s all I would need to make me truly happy.’

In reality, of course it’s not winning the lottery which brings happiness but having enough money to choose the kind of life you want to lead. It’s the autonomy and sense of control over your life and how you live it which brings that sense of happiness.

The lottery effect

Most of us have a kind of happiness default position. This comes as a surprise to most people.

Consider this example. Imagine you are checking your lottery numbers and, as each number matches that of your ticket, you have a growing excitement and realization that you have won.

In that instant, you become a multi millionaire.

How do you feel? And, more importantly how will you feel 12 months from now?

Dan Gilbert, (1) a Harvard psychologist has researched lottery winners and found that ‘the happiness effect’ starts to decline after just a few months. Once the initial elation of getting the big cheque has worn off , people seemed to return to their previous level of happiness or unhappiness.

Yet, we continue to think that being rich will bring us the happiness we crave

This pattern is the same for people who make significant progress up the career ladder.

After the big promotion, and when the immediate surge of achievement has worn off, they find they return to their previous level of content or discontent. For some, they may be unhappier as they start to climb the career ladder as they may now begin to lose touch with previous friends and peers.

The chemicals in your brain

Much of this effect is down to the chemicals in our brain which push us to work hard and achieve and give us a chemical reward via feel-good endorphins.

We decide to go down the gym or start running to get fit and, at first this new activity gives us a buzz. But the sense of achievement wears off after just a few weeks or months.

Boredom sets in. Now we don’t get the buzz any more but do feel guilty if we miss out on the daily exercise.

Scientists call this ‘the hedonic treadmill'(2). We work hard, push ahead, are driven by our brain chemicals to achieve and yet, this doesn’t make us happier long-term.

In any event, much of our perception of happiness is due to our internal dialogue. We all know ‘glass half full’ and ‘glass half empty’ people.

So how can we make better decisions? How can we better predict our life choices are the right ones and the ones that will bring us long-term happiness?

Scientifically proven tips for making good decisions

1. Avoid, as far as possible, negative people and negative situations. If there are things which cause you unhappiness, try and see if there are ways to minimize or delete them from your life.

2. Understand that you would only get short-term happiness from materialism. Winning the lottery, getting a bigger house, better job or faster car will not make you happy long-term.

3. Although the term ‘control freak’ gets a bad press, it turns out a sense of autonomy or control over your life is a better predictor of your happiness long-term.

4. Time invested in friendships and family is time well spent. Money can buy you a house but not a home. Money can buy you company, but not friends. One of the really best ways of being truly happy is to stay connected socially and gather a supportive network around you.

So, be aware of how your brain chemistry drives you on and be realistic about the things, and people, that will make you truly happy.

Do you want to climb off the hedonic treadmill or are you enjoying the ride?

Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.