Upsetting the Hedonic Treadmill

The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there.” Robert M. Pirsig.

To explain the escape from the Hedonic Treadmill, it’s probably important at first to define it. As a concept, it is the part of our adaptive process that quickly returns our sense of happiness to an already established level shortly after either a major positive or negative life change. I use the terms “positive” and “negative” as they might be interpreted subjectively, as it’s very hard to determine what value life changes may have if they do not result in an increase in happiness by those who experience them.

One of the easiest to spot traps here is that of money. Research shows that how much money someone has is in fact a very poor indicator of happiness. There are certain patterns that can be seen on the acquisition of material possessions, primarily in the “want -> work for -> get -> enjoy briefly -> become bored with -> find a new thing -> want,” pattern. It was actually posed by Albert Camus that the working towards a thing was the only real state that brought happiness.

While we may never come to agree on the “meaning” of things, it’s generally supported that once someone is above a base level of poverty, wealth plays very little factor in their sense of well being. What does seem to matter is how much time someone feels they are in possession of. It one study it is posed that perception of time scarcity increases stress levels, which has adverse effects on health.

Understanding that time and money are on a sort of quid-pro-quo scale does not really help either. Certainly what people enjoy doing with their time does seem to play a factor in the happiness it brings. Still, the hedonic treadmill scenario applies here too. Doing something you enjoy in smaller quantities has a greater impact on joy than doing it all of the time.

What does seem to be of very high value is personal experiences and a type of gratitude that comes from within the one who is experiences them. While it is easy to become distraught that your “brand new car” is not quite as nice as someone else’s “brand new car,” experiences are more abstract. I personally greatly value my time in exploring monastic living, and comparing that to someone else’s beach vacation makes no sense at all. We might differ in what we enjoy doing, but not in that we enjoy doing things.

This type of understanding also increases the amount of generosity we show towards others. We can stack all of these points together, and come up with a rather simple viewpoint.

We need enough of anything so that we do not feel impoverished, but the best use of our excesses is in freeing ourselves to do what we love, and in giving to others so that they may do the same.


Exercise: Climbing training + Wim Hof + Yoga, Diet: Much cleaner, spinach and chicken salad with olive oil.

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