Happiness Biology: Evolve Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is one of the reasons why you can’t out-earn a spending problem. Even with the earning-power of a high-income professional. Most of us work-out on this treadmill at some point in our lives. Our biology predisposes us to this. Understanding the biology of pleasure and happiness lays the foundation for building strategies to control the speed of the hedonic treadmill. Further understanding of how our wiring helped humans thrive can help us to thrive also, by aligning our spending with those forces.

What is the hedonic treadmill?

Humans have the tendency to adapt to their circumstances and return to a baseline level of happiness. We then seek out more stimulation in an effort to increase our happiness again. That continual pursuit of more stimulation results in us ratcheting up our spending, like turning up the speed on a treadmill, to keep the party going. Even to ludicrous speed.

The speed becomes a problem when you can no longer keep up and end up doing a lip-skid. That can happen if you cannot keep up with earning the required income. Or burn yourself out trying to. Even if you balance well, life happens, and you will stumble. Fortunately, at a controlled speed you can regain your footing.

On the other extreme, to suddenly stop running and become a financial monk seems like a solution. However, that approach similarly results in being ejected into the nearest wall. Pent-up demand will usually win out eventually. Plus, we give up comfort and effort to earn money. The purpose of that is to also spend some money to get comfort and security in return. Fortunately, there are ways to enjoy spending in moderation, using the tips in this post and some imagination.

spending problem

It isn’t just about “the next iPhone”.

The hedonic treadmill is usually epitomized by the much-maligned pursuit and accumulation of more “stuff”. For some reason, blog posts on the topic are riddled with references to the next iPhone. A testament to Apple’s successful marketing and strategy for world domination. However, the biology of human adaptation equally applies to “experiences”. Spending to have more experiences is associated with more lasting happiness than buying stuff. However, not all experiences were created equal in hacking hedonic adaptation.

The link between experiences and persistent happiness is strongest when those experiences also strengthen relationships, provide meaning, or result in self-improvement. In contrast, progressively more luxuriant vacations without those other synergistic links may not yield the same persistent results.

The biology of hedonic adaptation.

I was a medical nerd long before becoming a finance nerd. Beyond geeking-out, understanding some of the biology behind the hedonic treadmill can help us to find practical ways of regulating it to an appropriate speed.

The first thing to understand, is that it is not hopeless. Only about 50% of our baseline happiness set-point is genetically determined. About 3-10% of our happiness is due to external circumstances. That leaves a whopping 40-47% that we can modulate through how we think and behave. This sounds very quantitative, but it is based softer science. Still, the point remains that there are actions that we can take to be happier. We can make efforts to improve our circumstances and change our cognitive-behavioral approaches.

happiness baseline

Neurochemical Pleasure & Pain


Some of the biology behind happiness has to do with the chemicals of positive emotion: endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. They get released when we experience positive emotions, but also by activities like exercise. We experience this as pleasure. Anatomically, much of this occurs in the primitive limbic system of our brains. A region also integral to the encoding of memory.


On the other side of the equation is pain or discomfort. Pain can be physically induced. However, the same areas of the brain light up with unpleasant non-physical stimuli. The pleasure and pain processing pathways are intertwined and interact with each other. One of the ways that pain is prevalent with our financial behavior is loss. That loss could be physical, like paying for something with physical cash. It could be purely on paper, like seeing your investment portfolio down. Generally, the more current and concrete the loss, the stronger the stimulus is.

Our happiness oscillates in the short-term with pleasure and pain, and then moves back to its baseline. Basically, we get our hit of chemicals, they then go away, and we are left seeking the next hit. Further, some of the happy chemicals can also be released in stressful situations to enhanced retention in longer-term memory. The mix of our experiences, chemical cocktail, and neurological response also alters our neural pathways and changes how we react to them in the future.

The happy-chemical cocktail. Sip it, don’t chug it.

Biological systems are always more complex than simple models. However, we can take some useful general principles from them. In our simple chemical happiness model, like with other drugs, we can develop tolerance. That requires more pleasure stimulus for the same response or even discomfort from withdrawal. That can be the motor that drives the hedonic treadmill. So, a more persistent shifting of your happiness baseline requires a different approach.

For more persistent lasting happiness, we can try to achieve a smoother but higher steady state of our positive fluctuations. Like in pharmacology, that could mean an increase in the frequency of dosing at a lower level and/or a more gradual release over time instead of large boluses. The rapid chemical and neurologically mediated responses to stimuli helped primitive humans survive. Just like other animals. However, our biology has also helped us to thrive as a species and happiness has helped.

Evolve for Longer-Term Happiness & Fulfillment

Rapid responses to situations help an individual survive, and neurochemical mechanisms are well suited to that. However, individuals are also more likely to survive, and thrive, if they are part of a co-operative group. Survival means more genetic material passed on and an evolutionary drive to select out these behaviors. So, it makes sense that happiness has evolved in alignment with behaviors that promote not only individual survival, but also a thriving group. Particularly when that group shares common genetic material.

The ability of humans to remember past events, learn, and plan beyond the immediate term has also helped us to thrive as a species. Unsurprisingly, emotions are strongly intermingled with these activities.

evolution happiness

We are strongly motivated to action by our emotions, and happiness has helped to promote these evolutionary advantageous behaviors. Harnessing this biological force may help in our pursuit of happiness.

Re-release the happy-hour cocktail with relived memories.

The initial dopamine hit may be fleeting, but the memory lives on. We can actually reactivate those chemical and neurological responses when we remember a positive event. This underlies some of the suggestions to spend more on experiences that last a lifetime as memory rather than on “stuff” that decays or becomes obsolete.

The cocktail is strongest when consumed with others.

The relived pleasure response is stronger when the recalled events involve our relationship with other humans. The strongest response to happy memories is when those humans are the ones most dear to us. It is in our biology to relate and help others, particularly those that share our DNA or form part of the social unit that ensures its survival.

Learn and develop happiness.

spending satisfaction

There are an endless number of new things that we can learn or skills that we can develop. Not only can that improve our circumstances (10% of our happiness), that self-improvement can help keep the happy-chemicals flowing. They are released when we succeed and developing ourselves in new directions presents an endless supply of frequent (often low-cost) opportunities to do that. Getting the right balance of challenge and success doing an activity is term “flow” and is strongly linked to happiness.

Create recurrent fulfilment through your creations.

When you learn and create something, it lasts. You can re-experience some pleasure and satisfaction every time you view the fruits of your labor. Like memories, that could be with an object. Perhaps something your made. However, it is likely stronger with the relationships and successes that you have fostered in others. Strongest in those closest to you. For example, seeing some of the creations that I have made with my children make me smile every time that I see them.

Plan to be happy.

Humans get pleasure from planning. Planning and thinking about how much pleasure we will have from something and different options to get it actually allows us to virtually experience some of that pleasure. Pleasure from planning it, learning and experiencing it, and then remembering it. Multiple hits to the neurological pleasure centers with one stone. Leverage that even further by planning with others.

Don’t Win A Darwin Award. Harness your biology instead.

Our emotions have played a strong role in our survival as a species. Happiness is one of those. Much of our baseline happiness may be due to our biology. That influences us in the short-term with chemical and neurological responses that manifest as pleasure or pain. If we are driven by those short-term pleasure-inducers, that may lead to tolerance and ratcheting up the speed of the hedonic treadmill.

For more persistent happiness, we can get recurrent pleasure from some of the other biological drives that have helped humans to thrive. Building and reliving memories, learning and improving, creating, and planning have not only helped our DNA to survive and propagate. These actions also make us happy, and the abundance of opportunity makes the supply more persistent. The closer we align those actions with those closest to us, the stronger the effect.

evolution happiness

The fossil record is littered with those who landed on the wrong side of natural selection. Don’t win a financial Darwin Award by running on the hedonic treadmill. Instead, harness your understanding of the biology of happiness. Align with the forces of evolution in the pursuit of happiness. I will share some more concrete strategies in the next post to help you avoid a lip-skid on the hedonic treadmill.

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