Hedonic Treadmill

Leonie Taylor

“Unhappiness is best defined as the difference between our talents and our expectations.”
Edward de Bono

According to Dr Raj Persaud, Consultant Psychiatrist at The Maudsley Hospital in South London, presenter of All In The Mind on BBC Radio 4, “To improve the quality of life and wellbeing in a population, you reduce the number of bad things.”


Sounds simple, until you take into account that human behaviour means that as we get used to any feeling of wellbeing, we come to take it for granted and want more. In the psychology of happiness, this is referred to as getting trapped on the ‘hedonic treadmill’: the faster we run, the further we get, the further away we move our own goalposts.

This state of perpetually unfulfilled ambition, even in part, is what drives more and more of us in modern western society. It’s hard not to get caught up in the cycle of belief that if we have more money, bigger houses, faster cars, speedier technology, cooler clothes, shinier toasters, and so on, the happier we will be. Of course it is easy, at least on paper, to recognise that living in this state of velocity, of projecting our satisfaction to an undefined time in the future when our ambitions may be realised, can only cause stress and disillusion.

Dr Persaud recommends, “Act upon yourself to render yourself less upset by unchangeable circumstances - a tactic termed ‘emotionally focused coping’.”

Yoga offers us this means of coping. As Aristotle said, “Happiness belongs to the self-sufficient.” If we can take the pure joy that we can glimpse in our deepest asana, mantra and meditation practice – that simple, joyful realisation that we have all that we need to support ourselves within ourselves, within any given moment – we can find more sustainable contentment.

This is not to say that we should not try to move forwards with our lives, more that if we took the non-violent approach of our yoga practice into every aspect of our lives, we may notice the same movement in stillness. By appreciating the subtleties of each moment in our lives, by understanding and valuing the small details in each passing here and now, we can find more immediate, meaningful and long-lasting satisfaction than through endlessly chasing the unattainable.

To quote Edith Wharton, “If only we’d stop trying to be happy we’d have a pretty good time.”