Year of Discovery (Week 41: The Hedonic Treadmill and Narrative Identities)

Audrey Cheng
5 min readJan 20, 2022


This week, I wrapped up an ecosystem immersion in Cairo and made it to Chicago, where I’ll be for the next two months. It’s been 8 years since I’ve been to Chicago and I was welcomed by a blistering gust of wind invisible under the blue skies and soft sunlight. It’s also been 8 years since I’ve been in the US for more than 2 weeks at once, so I’m approaching this time with curiosity and steady observation.

Flying into icy Chicago on Sunday

Over the last few years, I’ve felt like an outsider watching the US breaking at the seams and my concern amplified when I wondered how I would ever adjust upon returning. But earlier this week, the kindness and warm greetings of Midwesterners reminded me yet again of the importance of lived experience over reading stories and fearmongering. While trends can give us different data points to understand the world, our beliefs need to be grounded in lived experience. I find that the majority of the time, I’m met with kindness and cruel actions happen rarely.

Today I’m writing a reflection on the hedonic treadmill and our narrative identity.

The Hedonic Treadmill

As I continue to learn about human flourishing, I came across a chapter by Richard Easterlin in The Fabulous Future?: America and the World in 2040. His chapter ‘A Happier World?’ was written in 2015 as a prediction for what America and the world would look like 25 years later. Easterlin predicted that people will, on average, be happier in 2040 than in 2015. The reason for the increase in happiness will not be from economic growth but instead from the robust employment policies and a universal social safety net he believes governments will implement to increase people’s feelings of well-being.

While I would love if Easterlin’s prediction came true, I find it a bit simplistic without addressing one of the biggest impediments to individual happiness: the hedonic treadmill. The hedonic treadmill is a metaphor for the human tendency to pursue one pleasure after another. The hedonic treadmill refers to the baseline or equilibrium that we return to after good or bad experiences. While we expect that the happiness that comes with good experiences or outcomes will stay, we always end up moving back to our baseline. For some, this means they end up chasing new objects, new jobs, new vacations or adventures, or new partners in order to ‘chase happiness’.

Buddhists posit that happiness is found not in the chase of something external but more in the equilibrium or baseline that we return to after what we label a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ experience. The equilibrium allows us to see things as they are and be more present with the existing experience as opposed to craving what’s not here. The space between reality versus expectation is what creates feelings of suffering within.

In Easterlin’s prediction, he points to countries like South Korea and China that have experienced tremendous growth in GDP and have seen stagnating or decreasing reports of individual happiness. From this, we can extrapolate that as we make more money, our expectations always increase. So regardless of our changing reality, as long as our expectations change at the same time, our ‘happiness’ goals remain a moving and unachievable target.

Is it possible for humans to relinquish our desires? Can we be satisfied?

Creating Our Narrative Identity

Understanding personality has been a process of fascination for me since I was a child as I wondered what makes each of us similar and unique in the way we engage with the world. When I meet someone new, I often try to understand what contributed to the way his or her personality was formed. It wasn’t until recently that I learned our narratives are a critical piece of our personality that develops as we age.

Personality is defined as “characteristic patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make a person unique”. Dan P. McAdams, who wrote The Art and Science of Personality Development, defines personality to be “a developing configuration of psychological individuality that expresses a person’s recognizable uniqueness, wherein life stories are layered over salient goals and values which are layered over dispositional traits”.

According to development and personality psychologists, personality is broken down into three layers:

  1. Traits (Actor)
  2. Morals/values/sense of self (Agent)
  3. Narratives (Author)

Our narrative capacity starts when we are preschoolers, as we learn to tell our autobiographical stories, which are often shaped by our temperament and influenced by our caregivers. When we enter middle childhood, we start to understand the basic elements of storytelling as we share our narratives in timelines and with a set of facts. “My name is Audrey. I’m 8 years old. I live on Cherry Hill Street. I have a sister.” But as we move into adolescence, the selective choices from our memory shapes our narrative and reflects the current understanding of self. The way we summarize ourselves creates coherence in the narrative we tell of ourselves.

This continues into the narrative of our adult lives. As McAdams says, to find a meaningful identity for life, we begin to selectively reconstruct the past and imagine the future to create a life story.

“To be an adult means among other things to see one’s own life in continuous perspective, both in retrospect and prospect. By accepting some definition as to who he is, usually on the basis of a function in an economy, a place in the sequence of generations, and a status in the structure of society, the adult is able to selectively reconstruct his past in such a way that, step for step, it seems to have planned him, or better, he seems to have planned it.” — McAdams

It’s interesting to understand the ways in which our narrative capacity and outputs change as we grow older. I remember a few years ago, I opened an old journal and was surprised by the way 21-year-old Audrey was writing about her life story. I say ‘her’ because at the time, it didn’t feel like my own story. And it made me see how much I had changed and evolved since I sat to write the original entry.

Today, as I immerse myself through exploration, a key piece that I’m focusing on is writing a new narrative for myself — to see myself in retrospect and prospect — and to create a narrative that embodies who I was, who I am, and who I want to be.

Reflection question: What does your own personal narrative today say about you?

What I’m reading this week: Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China



Audrey Cheng

Taiwanese American. Curious about ideas and solutions that support human flourishing.