Monday, May 25, 2009

Running on the Hedonic Treadmill

One excellent benefit of being married to an academic who studies human behavior is I sometimes get to learn about fascinating theories and ideas of human thoughts, motives, and actions. Lately, I have found myself thinking a lot about one particular theory. It is Brickman and Campbell’s idea of the Hedonic Treadmill.

Brickman and Campbell gave this name to the idea that humans develop a happiness “set point” early in life. This set point is fairly stable and it is the level of happiness to which we return after our temporary highs and lows fade away. Other researchers have expanded on Brickman and Campbell’s idea and now there is a Hedonic Treadmill Theory. It describes “the tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals. According to the hedonic treadmill, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.” (from Wikipedia)

When I first started running, back in March of 2002, I wore Converse Chuck Taylor high-tops and struggled to go 2.3 miles. It hurt a lot. I slowly improved and by the summer I was upping my longest run by two miles every two weeks. I was training for a marathon and I began to look forward to my long Sunday runs. I got new shoes—shoes made for running. I can remember the first time I ran 10 miles. I was high as a kite, reveling in my accomplishment. I couldn’t really believe that I was able to run that far without stopping.

The best training run I have ever had was one August morning when I stepped outside our house in Trumansburg, New York and ran across the rolling farmland and hills between Cayuga Lake and Seneca Lake and ended up 18 miles away in Watkins Glen. Eighteen frickin’ miles! It was amazing. And then that October I ran a full marathon—26.2 miles. Sure, it took four and a half hours, but I did it.

You would think the net effect of having run a marathon would be pretty positive and would last a long time. I would have thought so, too. But you and I would both be wrong. The actual net effect has been one easily predicted by the hedonic treadmill theory.

In the last 10 months I have run four half marathons, one twenty-kilometer race, and one 208-mile relay race through New Hampshire from the mountains to the coast. Yesterday I ran a half marathon in Boston. It was a beautiful morning, I was with friends, and I had decided not to focus on my time but instead to just run at whatever speed felt good and to be happy with finishing.

And yet today, when I went to the Cool Running website to check the results, I had a palpable sense of disappointment when I saw my time. 8 minutes and 50 seconds per mile. Just three months ago I ran a half marathon a full 58 seconds per mile faster. God, sometimes being a human is so stupid. Why can’t I just relish the accomplishment of having run 13.1 miles? It is not easy to run that far—not easy at all.

The odd thing is that while I was running I was truly and fully able to set aside my expectations of finishing in a certain amount of time. I really did simply enjoy the company and the weather and the people on the sidelines and the feeling of moving strongly and confidently in my body through the world. I was happy.

Yet not even 24 hours later, the happiness has faded away and the one feeling I am left with is a vague sense of disappointment. Given its name, it really shouldn’t surprise me that the hedonic treadmill theory applies to my running, but sure enough, it does.


  1. Ugh. I'm all too familiar with how the "Hedonic treadmill" applies to running. But to be honest, having a name to put to this "disorder" that has more to do with a universal condition and less to do with my own ego makes me feel a little better :].

  2. Never heard of that theory, but interesting article. I always think that no matter what you do, if it is scored, or timed ,in the case of running, disappointment is inevitable if full effort is not expended.