How Plastic Surgery Beats the Hedonic Treadmill Theory
- 04 April 2016
It is a well-known fact that man is an extremely adaptable creature. It might take some time, but the majority of us can get accustomed to anything, whether it be the direst of conditions or the most luxurious of lifestyles.
To illustrate this in a simple example, imagine a woman who has been eating the same cheap brand of mocha cake for years. The first time that she tries out a gourmet brand, she immediately notices the difference in taste. She comes to appreciate the fresher ingredients used in the gourmet cake versus the chemically manufactured sugars found in the regular cake. As a result, she changes her usual brand of mocha cake as she finds the gourmet pastry to be more delicious than the one she was used to eating.
But once she gets used to eating the new cake on a regular basis, she eventually realizes that the initial thrill of tasting it for the first time can never be duplicated. The new mocha cake, though still better than her previous brand, has become just another piece of cake, no longer as special as it once was. In fact, it will take a better cake to satisfy her and provide her the enjoyment that she experienced when she first tasted the gourmet cake.
As human beings, we eventually get used to things. And when this happens, it takes more to please us. This is known as the "hedonic treadmill," which is the tendency of humans to return to a relatively stable state of happiness and enjoyment despite major positive or negative events in life. The term itself, coined by British psychologist Michael Eysenck, illustrates how a human being's pursuit of happiness really is—like a person trapped in a treadmill who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place.
While it makes us resilient to unpleasant life circumstances, such as a major calamity or a death in the family, it also leaves us with a feeling of discontentment because we are bound to always aspire for more. It does not matter if you already bought your dream house or created the most successful startup in the world. It will only give you temporary happiness but once it becomes the new status quo, your life satisfaction will still stay the same.
Money can't buy happiness…
According to a study from Princeton University in 2010, an increase in income does not lead to greater happiness in the long run. As we get to have more money to spend, our desires and expectations—and hence, the possibility of disappointment—increase as well.
To further prove this point, here is a study published in 1978 regarding the level of happiness of lottery winners. The researchers of the now-classic study interviewed 22 lottery winners after the initial thrill of winning had worn off. Their answers were compared to 22 members of the control group drawn from the same neighborhoods as the winners. Interestingly, both groups expressed the same level of present happiness and made similar predictions about future happiness. In fact, when asked about mundane pleasures such as eating breakfast or talking to a friend, the lottery winners expressed less pleasure than did the control group.
It might seem cliché to say that money does not buy happiness, but that is exactly what these studies prove.
… But experiences and plastic surgery can
One of the possible reasons why lottery winners did not end up significantly happier than non-winners was the way that they spent their winnings. Perhaps most of them spent their money on material possessions, which is less satisfying when compared to spending them on experiences, like taking a vacation or going to a night out with friends.
A study in 2011 showed that where people spend their money has an impact on their happiness. Those who buy experiences rather than material things are happier individuals in general. Even those who use their money to benefit others rather than themselves are also happier with their lives, and this explains why many rich people choose to engage in charity work.
Individuals easily adapt to material stuff, like a new pair of heels or a brand new car. However, a certain pleasant experience happens only once in a lifetime, hence making it less prone to adaptation. The happiness that it brings can be revisited again and again only in memory—and that does not get old so easily.
But there is another surprising instance that seems resistant to the hedonic treadmill, and that is plastic surgery. A 1986 article revealed that individuals who have had plastic surgery were happy and satisfied with the results, and amazingly, the feeling remained constant over time. This is in sharp contrast with how people eventually become dissatisfied with material goods.
A more recent study done in 2011 also had similar results. The researchers interviewed 130 female Norwegian cosmetic surgery patients at two different times: before undergoing surgery and five years later. They tended to be happier and more satisfied with their appearance after the procedure, plus they also experienced a slight increase in overall self-esteem. Hence, the study concluded that cosmetic surgery has positive long-term effects not just on a person's appearance but on her perception of it.
If those evidences are not enough, a 2013 long-term study found out that patients who underwent cosmetic surgery felt less anxious and a lot healthier as compared to patients who contemplated on having plastic surgery but decided against it. The former also developed greater confidence and self-esteem because of their attractiveness, thus also reporting higher rates of satisfaction and well-being. However, the same studies also showed that patients with existing psychological conditions and unrealistic expectations post-surgery tend to be dissatisfied and unhappy with the results.
These studies only mean one thing: that our sense of self is associated more with our outward appearance than with the money in our bank accounts. There is a lasting sense of satisfaction that can be derived from looking—and feeling—beautiful, especially if others reinforce this feeling.
Money may not directly buy happiness, but it may help us collect lasting experiences and improve our personal appearance—things that science has proven to be beyond the hedonic treadmill's grasp.