Tips to Avoid a Lip-Skid on the Hedonic Treadmill

Last week we looked at the biology of happiness. There are short-term chemical influences and neuropathways wired for pleasure and pain. These emotions have helped us survive and thrive as a species and understanding those how those pressures have shaped our behavior and emotions can help our pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. About half of our happiness is a genetically determined baseline. However, we can influence the other half. This week, we outline some concrete strategies to regulate the speed of the hedonic treadmill, or to ease yourself off of it. Walk, choose your path, and savor the journey to avoid a lip-skid.

Take a bio-break.

hedonic treadmill

In the short-term, our happiness oscillates and is influenced by the balance of our pleasure and pain neuropathways and chemical transmitters. That ability to rapidly respond to our environment with action has helped our ancestors survive. Flee danger/pain, seek security/pleasure. Our ability to adapt to circumstances over longer periods has also aided our survival. However, this mix of stimulus and adaptation can drive the hedonic treadmill. To combat that, we need to put some breakers into the feedback loop. Taking a bio-break may help.

I am not talking about the quick way to get out of a boring Zoom meeting. I am talking about separating the exciting stimulus and the decision to act. This pause allows our rational brain to have a chance to over-rule our immediate-gratification-pleasure-seeking-brain. There are a few ways to do this in practical terms.

Spend less time aimlessly surfing ads and product literature.

This is hard because our media is largely paid for by companies that want to show you the newer version of what you already have. Even if the current version does what you need, it loses its shine when you see the new one. The more time that you spend researching the newest model, the more you acclimatize to it being the new standard. You may want something, but when it is the standard, you “need” it.

Marketers are highly skilled at developing the material that you use for your “research”. It is like going to a “drug lunch” to be educated about the treatment of a medical condition.

To avoid these lures, be the stage director for your media instead of a passive audience. Decide that you need or want something and then seek out the best information.

Use some of the tools that help you make rational decisions.

Consider your Time-Money Exchange Rate and whether the exchange of your work will be offset by the time saved or impact of the spend relative to your core values and goals.

Forced bio-breaks.

For the hard-core spend-a-holic, there are some hard-core strategies to force a pause. One is to freeze your credit card in ice thick enough that you can’t read it. You then have to delay long enough for it to thaw before unplanned spending. You’d probably also need to take the time to return home unless you were lugging a cooler around with you. This may have worked in the olden days. However, online shopping, autofill, and electronic wallets have made spending painless.

While not as forced as the physical state change of freezing, leaving your online purchases in the shopping cart for a day or two is another strategy. Don’t save your credit card information on the site and don’t keep your credit card anywhere near your computer.

Evidence of the danger of this strategy to frivolous spending can be seen in how these sites will start freaking out with reminder emails within a day or two. They understand the biology and behavioral science and I am trying to arm you to fight back. Guess, I won’t be getting asked to become an Amazon affiliate any time soon after this post.

Competition is also healthy. For those really struggling to reach their financial goals due to a spending problem, consider putting the credit card in an envelope labelled with a short-term savings goal and what that is for. Not only does that force a bio-break, but it also cues you to directly weigh your spending choice against something else that you want.

Increase the pain of spending. But don’t be a masochist.

The credit-card-access strategies make spontaneous spending a pain in the butt. There are other less extreme ways to make spending more of a pain in the brain. The use of [gasp!] cash to pay for something causes more activity in the pain centers than using something less tactile, like a credit card, where you don’t have to count it out. From experience, I can tell you the click of a mouse is even less painful than a credit card. There is functional MRI data to support this.

control spending

Linking the pleasure of spending and the pain of paying in the digital age.

Using cash has become increasingly difficult since the pandemic. However, one strategy that may help to more closely relate spending to paying is to pay back credit card balances in full more frequently than once per month. Your bank balance would shrink in a closer temporal relationship to your spending.

An even more zealous and painful strategy is to manually log your spending. By typing or writing it out. In close to real time. I did this as a medical student when money was extremely tight, and I was laser-focused on paying for the One Ring. It was painful and I can now say that one of the best things about being in a strong financial position is not having to do that sort of thing. I prefer budgets as a training tool rather than a life focus.

The problems with spending-masochism.

Paying your credit card balance regularly is definitely a good thing. Logging all of your spending is more debatable. It may be useful for a short period of time to draw your attention to frivolous poor spending choices. However, it is hard to maintain that for a long period of time. Even with an app. It also defeats the purpose of money.

You will spend money on basic needs whether you log it or not. Money is needed for that. To make that painful is simply masochistic. Further, we exchange comfort, effort, and time now to buy that back from someone else. Spending money should bring us some pleasure! That is why we worked for it.

Savor your spending.

Practicing gratitude is one of the best ways to control the speed of the hedonic treadmill. Moreover, it is associated with increased happiness on its own. Unfortunately, gratitude does not come naturally for many of us.

Professionals are naturally drawn to the arrival fallacy. We train for many years and subject ourselves to many “temporary” discomforts to reach the promised land as independent professionals. We arrive there, are happy, then adapt, and move on to striving towards the next goal. Enjoying the journey rather than grinding hard towards the destination is a radical change in mindset. There are multiple strategies that you can use to overcome the arrive fallacy.

How we can learn to savor the journey.

Make several things that give you pleasure a regular part of your day.

Don’t leave them all for the end of the day. Spread them out throughout your day. For example, that could be a morning cup of coffee, walking the dog, chatting with a friend, a hobby, reading in bed, or watching The Young & the Restless.

Rituals are great, but don’t forget to keep it fresh. Take different routes, call different friends, have multiple hobbies that you rotate through, try different books. I am told that there is no substitute for The Young & the Restless. Period.

If you don’t have time for relationships, hobbies, or other pleasures – then you need to change that.

Gratitude journaling.


Google the hedonic treadmill and gratitude journaling comes up repeatedly. It can help you relive positive experiences as you write about them. It also forces a pause to reflect and savor what is going on in your life. Admittedly, writing a journal does not appeal to me, but I can see the rationale and there is plenty of evidence to support it.

If journaling isn’t your thing (it conjures memories of elementary-school torture for me), then thinking about three things you are grateful for while enjoying an activity where you find flow may be an alternative. Same with consciously adding gratitude as part of prayer for those who practice a religion.

Regardless of how you decide to reflect and nurture gratitude, it could help to re-wire your brain. It can be easy to dwell on what is wrong with medicine, but we do have many things to be thankful for. Our career is a major focus as professionals, but also remember to make room for, savor, and reflect on the great things that happen at home.

Set alternative financial goals. Make them small, specific, and frequent.

It is important to decide about spending money rather than spend in reaction to whatever stimulus is presented to you in the moment. Having an important alternative financial goal that you are saving for helps. When you set goals and make progress towards them, that also releases dopamine and gives us a happiness.

Having multiple specific small goals rather than one big vague one helps you get more dopamine hits along the road towards your ultimate goal. For example, your goal may be financial independence. A shorter-term more tangible goal, like investing $1000 of your pre-tax income this month, may be a better competing goal for when you encounter the ad for the new iPhone.

Savor the process of spending deliberately.

A competing financial goal does not need to be about saving for an ultimately vague future. You could also be saving for the purpose of spending in the near future. This is in contrast to reacting to media or cultural pressure to spend. You want to spend money on something and seek out the information of how to best do it. For example, planning a vacation. Checking out and deciding on different places to stay and things to do can increase the pleasure of the process. We actually release more of our happy chemicals in anticipation of a reward than when achieve it!

Spend deliberately on what is most likely to bring you more sustained happiness.

Spending human and financial capital on some things are more likely to bring us happiness than others. We can only run on the hedonic treadmill at a certain speed before we are at risk of a lip-skid. So, it is logical to make our running technique as efficient as possible and spend synergistically on happiness instead of just a short-term pleasure-hit.

Avoid a lip-skid on the hedonic treadmill.

spending happiness


  1. Another excellent post on psychology of achieving financial success! As you have said, most obstacles to achieving financial success is not on the keeping on top of numbers (earnings and spending amounts) but rather what drives those numbers.

    The picture at the bottom of the article is a great visual summary that can be enhanced by adding your points regarding the tools you have mentioned (bio breaks, increasing pain of spending etc.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *