The Hedonic Treadmill Of Chronic Illness

pippa sat at table outdoors with river visible in background. pippa is wearing a pink denim jacket with a black top under it, holding up a red 'mocktail' and smiling

A treadmill analogy in a blog post about chronic illness? Really, Pippa?

You’re gonna have to hear me out with this one, guys. I’ll never know peace again until I get some of these thoughts down on paper.

Earlier this year, I read about a psychological concept known as hedonic adaptation. In a nutshell, hedonic adaptation is the idea that people adjust to their changing circumstances much more quickly than is desirable. We all have a baseline level of happiness, but when something positive or negative happens, we experience a temporary rush of emotions. We might feel that this turn of events will influence our levels of fulfillment in the long-term… but in time, we snap right back to that baseline level of happiness where we were before.

The obvious upside of this means that we as people can move on from the negative burden of trauma and despair. The downside, however, is that we’re consistently craving things that we believe will make us happier and more content. We’re always seeking out more than we currently have.

Even when it feels like life has significantly improved and we experience the rush of fulfillment, we quickly adapt to this new status and no longer notice the hum of positive emotions it once brought us; it becomes normalised. Therefore, we begin searching for the next high, and the next…often without being fully aware of this pattern.

When we feel as though we’ve fixed a problem, it’s human nature that we begin searching for a new one, craving another move forward. Essentially, we’re running on a treadmill that we never reach the end of. We never reach a final destination of contentment, because we’re always searching for the thing that’s ‘one-up’ from what we have now.

For me, learning about this hedonic treadmill put a whole new spin on the mild existential crisis I happened to be having at the time.

You see, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is my personal experiences of chronic illness and how they’ve influenced my levels of contentment. Whilst I wouldn’t say I was in recovery, my health these days is so much better than it was. Things slowly and gradually improved over the course of a few years, before reaching a somewhat stable point just over a year ago. Since then there’ve been no further improvements, but no significant regression either.

My quality of life when I was at my most unwell was radically different to my quality of life today. Back then, I remember thinking that if I could *just* manage to hold down a job, if I could *just* manage to get out and socialise every now and then, if I could *just* manage to live somewhat independently, I’d want for nothing else. There’s nothing else that I could possibly need to be happy.

But here’s the thing. All I wanted back when my health was at its worst, is exactly what I have now. And now that I’m here, I somehow have the audacity to want more.

It isn’t that I’m ungrateful for what I have now: far from it, actually. I know I’m privileged, and I know I’m lucky. Past Pippa in 2014 couldn’t ever have imagined that my life today would be the way it is. It obviously isn’t without its struggles, many of which go unseen, but if somebody asked me if I was contented with what I had, my honest answer would be yes.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there isn’t a flipside. More and more frequently these days, I catch myself thinking that if I could *just* work a few more hours per week, if I could *just* walk a little further without my wheelchair, if I could *just* make it out the house a little more often, I’d want for nothing else. There’s nothing else that I could possibly need to be happy. Starting to sound familiar?

The fact of the matter is that I’ve adapted to the positive changes in my life as a result of my health improving, and I’ve found myself caught on the hedonic treadmill. Even though I’ve reached what I initially thought was my final destination of contentment, my entire being is still searching for the next best thing. And the irony of all of this is that if this metaphorical treadmill was a real and physical thing, the over-exertion of being in pursuit of this next high point would undoubtedly be burning me out.

But where does all this leave chronically ill people?

Learning about hedonic adaptation did initially leave me a bit gutted. If this what we all go through, if this is truly human nature, how could we ever be content with what we have? Does this all imply that I’ll never be fully accepting of my life with my health condition?

However, knowing that the hedonic treadmill is an innate human experience that many people go through, chronically ill or non-chronically ill, helped. I think we’re all conditioned by the world we live in to be constantly scoping out the greener patch of grass on the other side of the fence. Heck, I reckon the experience of living in an ableist world means that chronically ill people’s desires to seek ‘better’ things (often associated with non-disabled people) are all the more valid… but I’ll stop that thought right there before I go off on a whole other tangent.

On the other hand, I know plenty of people who would dispute this idea that we adapt to a baseline level of happiness. Anybody who’s lived with a debilitating chronic illness knows what a toll this can take on your mental health and quality of life. I reckon many people who’ve come from that experience and seen improvements in their physical health, myself included, will always be mindful of that. Having that point of comparison, in my opinion, could perhaps override some of the desire to want more. I very much doubt that chronically ill people were at the centre of the initial theory of hedonic adaptation, so perhaps there’s room for interpretation when it comes to physical health?

THEN, on the other, other hand (if you haven’t guessed, this whole thing was an exhausting thought process), simply making that above assumption made feel guilty and even slightly ableist myself. It shouldn’t be assumed that somebody whose health hasn’t improved would be any less content than somebody whose health has. And we definitely shouldn’t assume that somebody with a permanent disability or health condition will automatically be unhappier or less fulfilled in their life because of it; many people will be quick to assure you of that.

So… where the heck do we go from here?

Just when I was about to acknowledge the lack of a nice, neat conclusion to all of this thought-spiralling, I discovered something that resonated with me far more than any of what we’ve discussed so far: some research findings indicate that instead of big, profound positive life events, lots of smaller things might make more of an impact on your longer-term levels of happiness. And when you think about things this way, it becomes clear that we as individuals have much more autonomy over our own happiness and wellbeing… irrespective of our varying physical health issues.

If you know me, you’ll know that I’m a big believer in the little things in life. No matter what they may be for you, I firmly believe that appreciating your favourite things can turn your day around. Even in the darkest, poorliest of days, the smallest of gestures can make all the difference. If you can find happiness in every day, or more days than not, maybe you’ll have the capacity to step off the hedonic treadmill and carve out your own path instead.

Now, that seems like quite a profound statement coming from somebody who’s still very much in the midst of their mild existential crisis about wanting more than they already have. So, if this piece feels relatable to you in any way, this conclusion is a note-to-self for us both:

If you’re currently caught up in the hedonic treadmill, there’s no need to feel guilty about it. It’s human nature to find your heart set on better things, perhaps all the more so when you have a long-term health condition. Being grateful for what you have and wishing things were better aren’t mutually exclusive, not by a long stretch.

If you’re struggling, perhaps turn your attention to the little things in your life instead. Think about what brings you joy in the here and now, irrespective of everything else. Appreciate these things. Indulge in them. Your mindset won’t radically shift overnight, but it might make more of a difference than you realise…

Thanks for reading! If you’re comfortable sharing, I’d absolutely love to hear any of your own little things that bring you joy, as well as your thoughts on the hedonic treadmill analogy and whether you can relate.

[AD – affiliate link] Links to relevant articles are included in this piece, but if you’re looking for a more accessible interpretation of it all, I’d highly recommend reading The Unexpected Joy Of The Ordinary by Catherine Gray. If you’re anything like me, it’ll resonate with you more than you might think!

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4 Responses

  1. I’ve never heard of this but I do love anything that’s to do with the way our brain works at an innate level! I wonder if our family are also on this hedonic treadmill with us.?? Thank you for sharing,

  2. this was so interesting and insiteful post!
    I’m not a psychology student but I love it so, so much! so this was a welcome read!
    I loved it a lot!
    thanks for this 🙂

  3. It’s odd. I’ve just learned of this term last week. I knew the concept quite well but wasn’t aware it had a name. Have you ever noticed that odd synchronicity when you become newly aware?
    Anyway, brilliant framing — concisely done.
    Chris in USA (wheeler)

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