Dan’s Hike, Part 1: Trails are Better than Treadmills

By:  Stephanie Tepper

Dan has begun a hike on the Israel National Trail and is documenting his journey with daily updates on his psychological experiences. As he ventures from the northern end of the trail located in Dan (seriously — see map below) to the southern tip in Eilat, we’ll follow along by digging deeper into the research behind the cognitive and emotional states he’s visiting.

With one week down, Dan has diligently kept us all updated on the sights he’s seen and his reactions to them. Each day, he reports on the emotions below and gives some background into the experiences that yielded these emotions. This week, we’ll look into the two types of happiness that Dan has been quantifying and what the research tells us about how we experience this distinction.

When Dan tells us about his levels of “happiness #1,” he is referring to hedonic happiness — as he noted, “the kind of quick, lighthearted happiness that we get from things like drinking a mojito or hearing a good joke.” Hedonic happiness is studied in contrast with eudaimonic happiness (happiness #2), described as a deeper, more lasting sense of enjoyment and well-being. While Dan’s hedonic happiness has been as low as 50/100, his eudaimonic happiness throughout the hike has remained consistently (and impressively) high.

Happiness #1 (Hedonic)                                                              Happiness #2 (Eudaimonic)

Disclaimer: n=1

This happiness distinction dates back to Aristotle and has had a resurgence in the last century as psychological research on positive emotions has gained momentum and popularity. Dan’s variance in hedonic hiking happiness maps onto a few different concepts of affective responses to life experiences:

1. The hedonic treadmill

As people experience more hedonic happiness and pleasure, they adapt to a new baseline, causing their threshold for happiness to rise. Dan’s low days may be a result of him adjusting to the overall increase in positive and new experiences; even if he derives about the same level of objective happiness from all of these experiences, he may rate them differently.

2.The peak-end rule

With applications to both pain and pleasure, the peak-end rule suggests that people generally disregard the duration of an emotional experience and base their memories and judgments on the most intense moment (the peak) and on the ending. Dan’s micro- moments of pain and pleasure, especially those that were more intense and memorable, may be responsible for these variations in hedonic happiness throughout week 1.

3.Misattribution of arousal

People occasionally make errors in understanding what is causing them to feel good, leading them to mistake physiological arousal, like an increased heart rate, for emotional arousal. We might expect variations in happiness #1 if Dan is reporting his emotions while standing on the edge of a mountain vs. pitching his tent to sleep.

These three ideas provide some insight into why we see variations in Dan’s hiking happiness with only one dip in eudaimonic happiness. While he may experience serenity, awe, pain, or boredom at any given moment, leading to fluctuations in hedonic happiness, he seems to be sustaining high levels of overall satisfaction and well-being from eudaimonic experiences like traveling, bonding with close friends and strangers, and taking in the landscape of his home country. Research suggests that the boost from these experiences is far less fleeting than that of momentary pleasures and contributes to greater overall well-being. On day 2 of the hike, Dan posted the following:

“I woke up with some pain, and I was reflecting on the rating scales that I am using to rate my feelings and mood and I realized that with this pain my happiness type 1 was low, but that happiness type 2 was just as high. And this realization made it easier to overcome the pain.”

Unsurprisingly, it seems like Dan is onto something — by placing greater value on our own moments of happiness #2, we may better understand the environments that shape our emotions and learn to cultivate more moments of eudaimonia.