Life on the hedonic treadmill

There’s a theory in psychology called the “hedonic treadmill” which says that most people have a happiness “set point” that they return to pretty much regardless of what happens to them. Things that you might expect to make someone very happy (winning the lottery) or very sad (losing a limb) actually tend to not have a dramatic long term effect on a person’s happiness. In other words, people are pretty resilient. Or, put another way, we’re forgetful. We think how how happy we would be if we got a big raise and how much easier our lives would be with a bit more money in our pocket. And we get the raise and some things do get easier. But pretty quickly we forget how life was before and how happy we are supposed to be now. The new becomes the status quo, we find a new set of things to worry about, and we end up about as happy as we were before.

However most of us don’t get raises or experience any other big life changes often enough to get a real sense of the power of the hedonic treadmill. To get a dramatic demonstration of this phenomenon in action, all you need to do is spend two years of your life working on a book, have it published, and then obsess over the hourly updates to its Amazon Sales Rank. (The Sales Rank is the number Amazon attaches to every book it sells. Better Sales Ranks mean more sales and—more important—a book’s Sales Rank is the only readily accessible, frequently updated data an author has about how a book is selling.)

You finish your book and start paying some attention to its Sales Rank. It’s still in the high 100,000s, or even the millions. Whatever. No one but your parents has even heard of your book yet, let alone bought it. Then you get some word of mouth going on the web which gets you a few pre-orders and your Sales Rank spikes up a bit, maybe into the 2,000s. Woohoo! Party!

Then it starts drifting back down. Oh well, the book’s not even out yet, no big deal. But you dream of maybe one day breaking into the top-1000. That sounds pretty cool. Imagine, one of the top-1000 books on Amazon! They sell essentially every book in print; what’s that ten million books or so? Top-1000 would put you in the top 0.1% of all books. That’d be awesome.

Then some early reviews hit the web. Maybe they get some play on the social networking sites. Wow! Sales Rank goes shooting up—past 1,000, into the 500s. Yippee! And the book isn’t even out yet! Who knows how it’ll do once it’s actually released. Then, once again, the rank starts drifting back down. You feel a bit sad when it starts dropping but pretty soon the days of a 500s-level rank feel like a bit of a dream; anything better than 10,000 is still quite respectable. The decline continues and pretty soon it’s closer to 100,000 than 10,000, but no matter. Hitting the 500s is pretty darn good and the book still isn’t even out yet.

Then a review on a very prominent web site sends the rank rocketing back up. In a few hours it goes from greater than 100,000 to the 500s. And keeps going! Smashes the old high-water mark! Holy cannoli, it’s in the top-200! #178! Wow, that feels awesome. You never thought this could happen. And surely the book won’t have its best rank ever before it’s even out. Maybe it’s not crazy to dream of getting into the top-100, even if just for an hour.

Then the downward drift starts again. But not too fast. It’s hanging out safely in the top-2,000 for a while before dipping down into the 3,000s. And it rallies occasionally into the 1,500 to 2,000 range. Really, if it keeps on like this, this is great. An average sustained Sales Rank better than 10,000 is pretty darn respectable. And that #178 is something you can tell your grand-kids about.

Then the book is released. Whether because of a burst of word of mouth or the publisher’s PR actually working or because there are just a lot of people who wait for the book to come out before ordering, boom! the rank is moving up again. Quick jump back into the top-1,000. 800s. 200s again! Whoa! #173. Beat the old mark! And back down. That may be it. But really, nice that that first foray into the top-200 wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime event. That’s pretty good. Now, let’s see how long it hangs out in the top-1000.

A few days, it turns out. Life in the top-1000 is pretty nice. Feels like this book might actually be a bit of a success. It would have been nice to crack the top-100 but this is good. Whoops, out of the top-1,000. Oh well. Still a long way to go before it falls out of the top-10,000. And look, it’s rallying again. 600s, 500s, 300s, 200s. Nice! Ah, #239 and then dropping again. Anyway, at least you’re back in the top-1,000 for a while. A dip out of the top-1000 then another rally back to #551.

Then much like before. Drifts down. It takes a couple days to fall out of the top-1,000 and then bounces around a bit between 1,000 and 1,500. Maybe the glory days of #173 and #178 are past but if the book just keeps steadily selling, that’s what’s important.

Then, one night before you go to bed, you see the book has been mentioned on another prominent web site. You wonder if that could possibly pop it back up into the top-200 again. That’d be nice. Maybe, just maybe, you still have a chance to crack the top-100. Something to dream about as you go to sleep.

Get up in the morning. Coffee. Check the ranks your computer has collected overnight. Holy smokes. It cracked the top-100 right after you went to bed! And it’s still there! At #22! In fact it’s been at #22 for three hours. Holy shit! Quick, email your folks! Wait, wait, new rank coming in: #16! Okay, this day is clearly going to be a total loss—you’re not going to be able to do anything until it starts going back down and you can relax. Sales Ranks are supposed to be updated every hour but that doesn’t mean they necessarily change every hour. So, a couple hours at #16. Wow—it’s holding its ground. Then, wait, wait, wait—#9. And #9 again the next hour! #8! #7! You have the #7 ranked book on all of Amazon! Only five books between you and Dan Brown’s new novel.

Finally it drops back down to #8 and hangs out there for a few hours. Then #9. Then #10. Hey, at least you’re still in the top-10. Finally you drop out of that. But you’re still in the top-25 which puts you on the first page of Amazon best sellers. So that’s cool. Anyway, you spent a day and a half in the top-10. A couple days later you drop out of the top-25 and the next day out of the top-50. But what the heck, you made it into the top-10. Who ever figured on that? At the moment you’re still in the top 100, hanging on in the 90s. You know it’ll drift back down. Will it hang out in the top-1000 for a while. Probably. Will you be sad when, inevitably, it falls out of top-1000. Probably not. Life on the hedonic treadmill.


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