Suppose you live a comfortable life, but you cannot afford all the luxuries that you see your neighbor has. You feel discontented. Who is it, exactly, that is making you unhappy?

Probably you know the answer already, and it is not your neighbor. He didn't do anything to hurt you. You are the one who decides whether you will be happy.

In Michael Eysenck's book "Happiness", he describes what he calls the "Hedonistic Treadmill".

A person on the hedonistic treadmill seeks happiness by gaining more of whatever seems to make them happy. One very well known entertainer he describes (now dead) began in fairly modest conditions, but as he gained wealth he decided to "live life to the max". The individual bought fleets of cars for himself and his friends, held big parties, stuffed himself in eating marathons, tried every available narcotic drug, and eventually brought himself to a premature death.

It should come as no surprise to you that this individual was not exactly the epitome of happiness. The problem is that each motivator has the property of reaching saturation. That is, the joy you can achieve from any particular activity soon approaches a maximum. Attempting to achieve further joy by going to excess is, quite simply, futile.

The entertainer he described was on a treadmill, and like most treadmills it goes nowhere.

Worse yet, due to rising expectations, it is a treadmill that runs faster and faster, until the runner discovers that he is both miserable and exhausted.

As Eysenck points out, people become habituated to a particular situation. The nouveau riche soon get used to eating the finest food in the world, driving the most sporty cars, and soon these things seem to be just "ho hum". To find some activity that they can regard as "special", they mistakenly believe that they must go to increasingly extravagant means.

Individuals born into "old wealth" are less likely to fall into the hedonistic treadmill than the nouveau riche, simply because they already know that wealth (or excesses of any kind) do not bring happiness.

To achieve happiness, a person must have a variety of joys, employing their various talents and motivators. They must engage their curiosity, learn, develop friendships, etc.. Happiness is achieved more through variety and frequency of satisfactions than by intensity.

From Pathways daily ideas file, copyright Arthur de Leyssac, 2009; all rights reserved.