Careers and the Hedonic Treadmill

In my first job after I graduated college, I worked for a regional accounting firm. It was fairly outdated in terms of its offering of non-financial benefits to its employees, and most likely operated just as it had 25 years prior. Employees were required to sign in and out at the front desk everyday. God forbid you went out to lunch and forgot to sign out when a partner was looking for you. If you wanted to work from home because you weren’t feeling well or any other legitimate reason? You better have called in that morning so they could write it on the sign in sheet for everyone to see.

I’m pretty sure the people running that firm did not believe in meritocracy either as all that seemed to matter was tenure. After a short time, I could tell this wasn’t a place for me. I realized I wanted to work at a place where it didn’t matter if you signed in and out, or if you needed to work from home every once in a while. I wanted to work where people were compensated and rewarded based on their abilities, effort, and value added to the organization, and not just the years they had been employed.

I eventually found that place, and it was great… for a while. Slowly, hours at the office got later, and pressure to get things done got more intense. Eventually though, the new job became the “new normal.” Then, I decided I’d be happier in my career if I had X and Y, in addition to A and B. I eventually realized I was stuck on the hedonic treadmill.

Hedonic treadmill – the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.

Working from home is great, until it becomes “normal.” Not being on call to work weekends is great, until it becomes “normal.”

Now don’t get me wrong, flexibility in your schedule is a huge benefit to a career. I don’t want to discount that. But our lizard brains become used to things quite quickly, and new things begin to develop a patina.

I realized I had to change the goalposts. I needed to stop looking for the next best thing to make my career something I was happy about day-in and day-out. I realized, no matter how great the career, there were still going to be warts because no career is perfect. I needed to align my values and goals with my career. In no particular order, below is what I need out of an employer and my career.

  1. Flexibility in daily schedule, including the ability to work remotely
  2. Meritocracy reigns
  3. Enjoy the people I work with
  4. Income to support my lifestyle and savings goals
  5. Work doesn’t compromise values

Do I have these things? Currently, yes and I am very grateful. I have worked hard for the past 10 years to arrive here. Instead of falling back into my old ways of getting bored after a short while and seeking out greener pastures, I need to look back at this list and realize these are the important things.

Would adding 20% to my income, a more prestigious job title, or work that is a little more interesting be welcomed? Of course, but I’m aware of the hedonic treadmill and know it’s most likely not possible to completely avoid it. I recognize that it is there, and hopefully that will allow me to make the appropriate choices and not consistently seek external changes expecting improved internal results.*

* – this may work in a majority of life situations, now that I think of it. 

2 thoughts on “Careers and the Hedonic Treadmill

  • I think I needed to read this! I’ve been getting itchy feet at work and started looking at job adverts but nothing seemed quite right. I realise now it’s because my current job hits each of your 5 points more or less. Maybe only number 1 could be improved but so far all of the jobs adverts I have seen would have made this worse. So I think what I need to do is focus on the positives of my current job and give it my 100% commitment. Thanks for the pep talk!

    • It’s common to think that way for sure. Glad you were able to take a step back and realize it wasn’t so bad.

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