The "Hedonistic Treadmill": Economists Quantify "Happiness" and Study its Causes

        Since about the 1990s, economists increasingly have been inspired to study people's perceptions of their happiness.  By large-scale surveys of populations in many nations, the scholars try to determine what "material circumstances" and "historical conditions" produce more or less happiness.  Although global capitalism's defenders have mounted a spirited counter-attack, the early research conclusions continue to suggest that greater economic success does not necessarily translate into greater happiness.  In fact, under certain fairly common conditions, more success can make you more unhappy.  One such condition has been called "the hedonistic treadmill."

        Hedonism is an ideology (an "-ism") based on the pursuit of "hedone" (Greek, "pleasure").  Economists have noted that, contrary to what "common sense" would dictate, once basic needs for food and shelter are met, increasing one's net wealth does not lead to increased happiness.  In fact, the richer one becomes, the more rapidly one becomes accustomed to adapting to the socio-economic changes wealth brings.  Purchases of new commodities may bring temporary increases in pleasure, but almost immediately thereafter the buyer experiences a drop in happiness, an effect that actually is referred to in contracts for home purchases as "buyer's remorse."  The danger of losing commodities one has acquired causes a gradual increase in unhappiness, and actual losses cause more unhappiness than the happiness produced by the original acquisition.  This produces the "treadmill" effect--desire for happiness leads to purchases which produce unhappiness, increased by fear of loss and actual losses, which lead to further purchases which lead to . . . etc.

        Further study of specific sources of pleasure, like sex, have extended the implications of "hedonistic treadmill" effect to sex as a factor influencing perceived happiness.  Contrary to popular wisdom, a study of 16,000 Americans concluded that increased income does not lead to increased sexual satisfaction: "Greater income does not buy more sex, nor more sexual partners.  . . . The happiness-maximizing number of sexual partners in the previous year is calculated to be 1" (Blanchflower and Oswald 1).

Blanchflower, David G. and Andrew J. Oswald.  "Money, Sex and Happiness: An Empirical Study."  Scandinavian Journal of Economics (27 July 2004).  Available online at  Viewed 2/20/06.