Is happiness like a treadmill that gets faster and faster?

“Everything’s amazing, but nobody’s happy!”

This declaration from funnyman Louis C.K. is one of the most famous sentences in the past ten years of stand-up comedy. The line kicks off this rant, which the comedian delivered on Conan:

Louis’s point is that we are surrounded by technological wonders and material riches, yet we remain restless and unsatisfied. People quickly become accustomed to the latest marvels and waste no time in taking them for granted.

In one laugh line that rings particularly true, Louis mocks an airline passenger who is invited to use in-flight WiFi in the earliest days that service was offered. All the travelers were instructed to open their laptops and enjoy in-seat Internet for the first time. But then the new system glitches out and disconnecting the passengers. One man becomes indignant and starts complaining loudly — and this is the attitude Louis cannot abide. “How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only ten seconds ago!”

The funniest comedy turns a spotlight on universal human tendencies, and this bit is no exception. We can all relate to moments when we or a friend exhibited the impatience or ingratitude that Louis points out. We have all rolled our eyes at a sluggish smartphone that would have literally seemed like magic just two decades ago. We recognize this unflattering tendency, yet it persists in all of us. Why?

Science backs up the comedy

Social science can shed some light. Since the early 1970s, psychologists and economists have been studying a puzzle: Why don’t developments that seem to radically improve our quality of life actually provide a lasting boost to our self-reported happiness?

They answer that puzzle with a concept called the “hedonic treadmill.”The phrase sounds daunting and scholarly, but the concept is commonsensical. It all starts with the observation that humans have a remarkable ability to adapt our expectations to our environment.

We usually think of this as a wonderful trait. Young people with low salaries don’t spend every minute of their lives miserable because they can’t buy a BMW; rather, their rubric for the world shifts to match their surroundings, and a used Toyota brings real joy when it’s first driven off the lot. Men and women who experience personal tragedies rarely become permanently depressed; instead, the sadness that accompanies an injury or a death in the family usually dulls as we slowly adapt to our “new normal.” So far, so good. Three cheers for our adaptability — right?

Well, maybe not. Our tendency to quickly create these “new normals” also limits the effectiveness of the good things we experience. Studies show that income change, whether they are one-time shocks like a Christmas bonus or permanent, like a raise, tend to spike our self-reported happiness in the short-term. But the gains fade away after just a few weeks or months. Once we become accustomed to a marginally more expensive lifestyle, that lifestyle becomes ordinary and ceases to appear special.

Hence the phrase “hedonic treadmill.” Soon after a new development in our lives gives our happiness a burst of speed, the treadmill of our expectations speeds up to match. Now, we need to keep running that quickly just to maintain our baseline happiness.

The treadmill applies to whole nations, too

This adaptability, both a blessing and a curse, does not only apply to individuals. It also seems to hold true for entire whole societies. Economists have spent decades debating the “Easterlin paradox”: why don’t countries get consistently happier as they get wealthier and technology improves? The treadmill idea of hedonic adaptation is consistently put forward as one answer. The first people to experience refrigeration, or telephones, or air travel might have spent a few years marveling at the novel conveniences. But after a few years — let alone a few generations — expectations adapt upward.

It seems almost impossible for either individuals or societies to persist in a state of amazement and gratitude for how good we have it. True, we have resources at our fingertips of which previous generations could never have dreamed — but we are used to them. The hedonic treadmill will always keep pace, and make our breathtaking march towards modernity seem like business as usual.

Maybe Louis C.K. should add “social scientist” to his resume.


AEI intern John Henry Thompson contributed research and reporting.