I’m sure you’ve been there before.
You really wanted to achieve that goal. You wanted to pass your course, get that degree, buy that car, score that job, travel the world. Whatever it was, you knew that as soon as you achieved it you would have “made it.” You would finally be happy.
Then you did achieve it. All that hard work, all that suffering and sacrifice, finally paid off. You couldn’t have been happier, more content, more complete.
And then a week passed. Or a month, or a year… However long it was, the thing you had achieved, the thing that had occupied so much of your time, attention and heartache, no longer gave you the happiness that it once did.
Instead of everything being great and wonderful after achieving that goal, all that happened was that your attention had wandered to something else: a new goal, a new dream, a new cause. And now you can’t be happy until after you achieve that goal…
And around and around you go.
the hedonic treadmill
This is called the “hedonic treadmill” in psychology,(1) and it goes a long way towards demonstrating the importance of internal goals over external goals. Sure, when we achieve an external goal we’re happy, but eventually that happiness fades, and so we need to replace it with another goal. And then another, and another, ad infinitum. You’re constantly moving but not really going anywhere.(2)
The reason for this is “hedonic adaptation,” the idea that each of us has a happiness “set-point,” a default level of happiness to which we constantly return.
There are people who have won the Lotto and become overwhelmed with happiness, only to later find that their overall level of happiness has returned to what it was before they hit the jackpot. Other people have been struck by blindness or paralysis, who understandably grew miserable as a result, only to later find their level of happiness returning to about what it had been before their tragedy.(3)
As I’ve said before, we’re actually terrible judges of what will make us happy and unhappy. We overestimate how great the positive changes in our life will be and how catastrophic the negative ones will be.
We think we’ll be happy when we finally have everything we want, and like spoilt children we aren’t. We think we’ll be unhappy if we lose what we have, and like enlightened sages we aren’t. This is a double-edged sword, of course; hedonic adaptation causes happiness from positive changes to fade, but it also helps us to bounce back from the negative ones.
Obviously, we need some goals. People in material and economic hardship are right to have the goal of escaping poverty, for instance, because yes, to a certain point money does buy happiness. However, researchers on this very question have found that after our basic material needs are met, our happiness doesn’t actually increase with more money. It is after that point that our search for ever greater levels of happiness just lands us on the hedonic treadmill.
So the problem is not with external goals, per se. The problem is with making our entire sense of well-being dependent on external goals. The problem is with thinking there’s nothing more to life than chasing the next fleeting pleasure, and the next, and the next, forever. The problem is with always needing to get what we want.
the social cost
It’s impossible to calculate the hedonic treadmill’s cost to human societies. How many wars, how many murders, how many crimes have been committed because of people who could not stop craving more and more?
Take, for instance, the curious case of Alexander the “Great” (I refuse to write that honorific without scare-quotes and all the bitter sarcasm that implies). This spoilt, privileged aristo-brat simply wasn’t happy with just being the King of Macedonia. No, he had to have Greece, Egypt and the entire Persian Empire too.
How many human beings died in all those battles? How many families were broken by the deaths of their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons? How many in the countryside of this vast land area suffered because of armies eating up their crops and spreading disease?
And was all this enough for the “great” man? No. Having reached the eastern frontier of the Persian Empire he decided he couldn’t be happy until he took India as well. He was stopped from invading only because his exhausted army finally told him enough was enough. And like the man-child he was he sulked in his tent before punishing his army by marching them home the hard way through the desert, where many more died.
I’m hard on Alexander – and he richly deserves it – but he is of course just one of many mass murderers who couldn’t escape the hedonic treadmill.
Today, we don’t so much worry about the conquering warlords as we do the corporate billionaires. Yet while the characters and settings change, it’s basically the same movie.
If you’re the Koch brothers, it’s just not enough to have over $50 billion each, you have to buy politicians to give you tax cuts so you can have even more billions. If you’re Jeff Bezos, it’s not enough to have over $200 billion, you also have to punish your workers with truly dystopian pay and working conditions so that that number in your bank account will continue to rise.
If you’re Elon Musk, it’s not enough to be the richest man in history, you also have to support a coup in Bolivia and destroy democracy in that country so that you can take its lithium and make more money. The list goes on and on and on.
And why do it? What can you do with $300 billion that you can’t do with $100 billion, or $10 billion, or one (except fly uselessly to space instead of saving the planet)? This kind of behaviour just doesn’t make sense except in the light of the hedonic treadmill. Which no doubt also explains why these same billionaires appear to be obsessed with science finding the secret to immortality; it’s literally the one thing they don’t have.
Yet surely the religious world, to which so many millions look for guidance, has been more enlightened on this issue? The problem is that even the most well-meaning religions have the problem of being made up of people, and as such have been as vulnerable to the pernicious influence of the treadmill as anyone else.
Of course religious leaders can be found plotting for earthly power, or using the language of religion to create rackets for conning people out of money. Such idiotic nonsense is called “spiritual materialism,” and is essentially pseudo-religion putting the hedonic treadmill on steroids.
Take the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” in the United States. Somehow, Jesus’ injunction to “Sell all you have and give to the poor” has been loosely translated into “God wants you to be rich!” And of course, the more money you give to the pastor, the more God will “bless” you in heaven.
Televangelist Jesse Duplantis has become infamous for asking his followers to donate money so he could buy a $54 million private jet to use to “preach the gospel.” Why couldn’t he fly in a normal plane like everyone else, you may ask? Fellow televangelist Kenneth Copeland was happy to explain that normal planes are filled with “demons.” Of course.
And yes, Duplantis’ followers were happy to buy him his stupid jet.
There are many differences between all these people, past and present. But there is one thing that they all seem to have in common: they are not happy. They can’t be. Even if they’re often held up as exemplars of the good life, their lavish lifestyles the objects of our envy, we should see that if they were truly happy then they’d just sit back, chill out, and stop chasing happiness all the time.
Alexander could’ve just stayed home and enjoyed all the comforts and privileges of being a King, instead of killing everyone. Today’s billionaires could just take off to their private islands and live it up on some beach, instead of sticking around and making life worse for everyone. Televangelists could get a real job and stop conning people.
But they won’t. They can’t. For them, the treadmill just keeps on running.
coming back to where you are
Finding an answer to the hedonic treadmill has been a centrepiece of spiritual traditions for millennia. Despite the distortions of their spiritual materialist doppelgangers, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Stoics, and many others have all had traditions of shunning the pursuit of profit and pleasure, recognising them as ultimately fruitless paths to the good life.
Why would someone become an ascetic, or retreat into a monastery to live a life with bare necessities, or take a vow of voluntary poverty? The answer is simple: they are trying to find out if there is more to life than just seeking more and more. They are trying to find a deeper form of well-being that relies on reminding themselves of what they do have – even when they have nothing beyond bare necessities – rather than always allowing their minds to wander to what they don’t have.
Wherever you are right now, just stop for a moment. Soften your gaze and look around you. What do you see? What colours, what light, what objects? What is moving and what is still? What sounds reach your ears in this moment? Maybe the hum of the refrigerator, traffic in the distance, people speaking in the other room. Maybe it’s just the sound of your own breath, soft and quiet.
Feel the weight of your body in the chair or bed, your feet on the ground if you’re standing. Relax the arms and legs. Allow the next in-breath to pick up all the remaining tension in your muscles and the out-breath to drop it all away into the floor.
Marvel at everything that is happening in this present moment, all happening on its own, in all its variety. There’s nothing you need to do about it, nothing you need to change about it, nothing to judge as “good” or “bad.” This moment is enough, just as it is.
This meditation itself has no set goal, no expectations, no agenda. You’re not trying to get anywhere, you’re not trying to reach some new exotic state; on the contrary, you’re just coming back to where you are. This meditation can just be a time for breathing, for letting things be, just for a moment.
This is it. You’re here. You’re alive. What more could you want?
1. Psychology Today. (n.d.). The Hedonic Treadmill. https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/basics/hedonic-treadmill
2. The Buddhist metaphor is that of the “hungry ghost,” always craving but never satisfied, and therefore living as a mere shadow of a human being.
3. Psychology Today. (n.d.). Your Set Point for Happiness. https://www.psychologytoday.com/nz/blog/meditation-modern-life/201709/your-set-point-happiness
It’s true – happiness is to be found in the here and now. Don’t get me started on Bezos or the so-called ‘Prosperity Gospel’ though…!
My thoughts exactly 🙂