Meaning Over Money Podcast_Hedonic Treadmill

Comp Season and the Hedonic Treadmill

This article was provided by It’s Never About Money guest, Travis Shelton, which further caries on the conversation from our episode together. Click here to listen to episode 49 of It’s Never About Money.


In the business world, there’s no more anticipated yet nerve-wracking time of the year than compensation season. You know, the time of the year when many of us await the news of possible pay raises, promotions, and bonuses. It’s a mainstay of the corporate culture, with each company having its own unique rhythm.

For some, it will be a frustrating season. The promotion that didn’t happen, the bonus that feels a little lighter than it should, or the cost-of-living pay raise that feels underwhelming. But for others, it will be an exciting moment! The promotion you’ve been working hard to receive, with a sweet pay raise accompanying it, and maybe a heaping side of oh-my-goodness-that’s-amazing bonus. During my 15 years in the corporate world, I experienced both sides of this coin.

When I left my corporate career four years ago and founded my coaching business, our mission was simple: help people unlock a meaningful life by aligning their work and money with their values. Yes, we all want financial success. But there’s something bigger at play here. There needs to be a deeper level of fulfillment than simply chasing the dollar. This idea applies to us as individuals, business owners, and as leaders of our respective teams. When we simply boil it down to money, we’ve already lost.

Back to the topic at hand. Let’s focus on the more enjoyable outcome of these compensation discussions. Think back to a compensation season where you felt satisfied. It was an amazing feeling, wasn’t it? Equal parts euphoria, affirmation, and a sense of life, career, and financial accomplishment. I love those moments. The ones where it feels like life will be different from here on out. Some of these moments are forever etched into my memory bank.

But something quickly happens after these special moments. Life moves on. The bonus gets deposited into the bank account, where it’s quickly spent, saved, or given away, and the new, slightly fatter paycheck becomes just “normal.” With the snap of our fingers, that seemingly monumental moment fades into the rear-view mirror and we settle back into the same old us as before. Wasn’t this supposed to make us happy? What about that long-awaited sense of accomplishment? In the behavioral science world, it’s called the hedonic treadmill.

The hedonic treadmill is a phenomenon by which we humans will ultimately (often quickly) return to our base level of happiness after experiencing good or bad situations in our journey. That promotion, pay raise, or bonus? It feels good right when it happens, but the hedonic treadmill kicks into action, and we’re soon back to our usual selves. This psychological quirk also applies to much more significant and weighty life situations. Behavioural scientists wanted to see how far this concept could span. They studied polar opposite groups of people:

  1. lottery winners who received life-changing money.
  2. people who became tragically paralyzed in accidents.

The results were predictable. People who won life-changing money were extremely happy, and paralyzed accident victims were extremely unhappy. Of course they were! However, the data gets a lot more interesting when we fast forward in time. As time passed, even as little as a few months, the happiness levels of lottery winners fell back to where they originally started, and the happiness levels of paralyzed accident victims rose back to where they originally started. It was a fascinating study with shocking results.

That’s fascinating and all, but what does this have to do with our pay raises, promotions, and bonuses? Many of us simply don’t like our job. The statistics vary from one country to the next, but in America, where I reside, the data is staggering. According to the most recent iteration of Gallup’s State of the Workplace study, approximately 69% of Americans dislike or hate their job … 69%!? That means if you put five couples around a table, only three people actually like what they do for a living! The numbers get even worse for Australia and New Zealand, where a staggering 77% of people dislike or hate their jobs. Nearly 8 out of 10!

How does this happen? In two of the most open and thriving economies in the world, with technology that gives us unprecedented global access to everyone in it, how do we end up in a place where we can do nearly anything we want for a living, but most people still dislike or hate their job?

There are several reasons for this unfortunate statistic. Part of it, I believe, revolves around those moments we eagerly anticipate during compensation season. Those pay raises, promotions, bonuses, and other material benefits companies dangle in front of us. That euphoric feeling, which quickly reverts to normal, then morphs into a different variety of self-talk.

“I thought I needed X income to be happy … it must be Z instead.”

“I thought having X in my bank account would make me feel secure … it must be Z instead.”

Thus, the cycle continues. We work hard for another 12 months and await next year’s compensation results. It’s the hedonic treadmill in action.

Please don’t hear me saying higher pay and bonuses are bad. Rather, I’m suggesting that we should pause and ask ourselves what would actually make us happy. Behavioural science shows it’s probably not more money, as the hedonic treadmill will likely knock us back down a peg each step along the way. If you love your job AND getting paid well to do it, props to you! I was in that camp for many years in my corporate job before leaving it to start my own coaching business. It’s a great feeling. But considering the vast majority of people either dislike or hate their job, chances are more than half the people reading this may be lacking on the job satisfaction front.

As you approach your next compensation season, be excited and grateful for whatever windfalls come your way. You’ve worked hard, and you’ve probably earned it. Soak that in and steward it well. But also, really think about what you want to be doing. Here’s a simple test I ask my clients: when you wake up in the morning, are you:

A) dreading what you’re about to do?

B) tolerating what you’re about to do?

C) excited for what you’re about to do?

If the answer is A or B, it may be time to discern what would put you into camp C. If we believe the statistics mentioned above, inhabitants of camp C are rare. Every one of us could be there, but only if we’re willing to deviate from the safe, comfortable path and pursue meaning over money.

The call is simple. We have three primary choices:

1) We can find meaning and fulfillment in our current work,

2) We can live in a constant state of dread or tolerance, or

3) We can pursue different work that fuels us when we get out of bed each morning.

Not making a choice is still making a choice. I proudly live in the minority of people who find meaning in my work, and I hope you do, too! But if not, I hope you’ll join us soon.

There’s room for everyone!


Travis Shelton is an executive financial coach, speaker, author, and host of the Meaning Over Money podcast. He engages in conversations about money and work, but through a different lens. Travis works with a wide range of clients, including professional athletes, executives, teachers, and business owners, all ready to redefine the role of money in their lives. He resides in Des Moines, Iowa (USA) with his wife and twin seven-year-old sons. If you want to learn more about Travis, you can find him on Instagram, LinkedIn, or his website.

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