Riding the Hedonic Treadmill

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hedonic Treadmill. According to Wikipedia, the Hedonic Treadmill

is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedonic_treadmill)

In other words, just like a real treadmill, no matter how fast you go and how hard you push yourself, you will always end up back in the same place.

The Treadmill has been much on my mind myself a bit less happy these days – not really sad, just kinda middle-of-the-road content. I find myself in this situation even though I seem to have achieved a lot of my goals and have created a life that seems pretty good on paper.

Were all the heady thrills of my youth just temporary jolts of happiness before sober adulthood brought me crashing back to my current weak-tea version of contentment? Will I have to keep force-feeding myself a constantly escalating diet of new countries, new challenges, new adventures, and more expensive toys just so I can keep feeling something, even though all I really want to do now is stay at home with my dogs and practice the guitar?

Although the Treadmill seems to be a widespread phenomenon, either due to something inherent in human nature or through the success of demand-driven western capitalism, it all seems more ludicrous when living in the Philippines, a country with so much highly visible poverty. On the one hand, I’ve met plenty of Filipinos who seem happier than I could ever be without a centavo in the bank, and in some cases without ever having traveled more than a hundred kilometres from their hometown. That’s not to downplay the challenges that many Filipinos face – the idea of a life with almost no social safety net is absolutely terrifying, especially for someone from a developed country who is accustomed to universal health care. No amount of positive thinking can erase the pain of losing a loved one due to lack of money for medical treatment or medicine.

But as the economy here continues to boom, buoyed by the country’s amazingly skilled, highly-educated English-capable workforce, you can see more and more people climbing dutifully onto the treadmill to begin their endless ride. Mixed in with indisputably beneficial rewards like good employer health insurance and increased opportunities for travel come the usual trappings of the treadmill: the idea that the higher you climb up the corporate ladder, the more expensive the treats, toys, and gadgets must be to provide a suitable reward for your labours, to make it all seem worthwhile, and to recapture just a bit of the original thrill of getting your very first paycheque all those years ago. In spite of all the obvious benefits of economic growth, it’s a pretty depressing sign in a country where so many people can still find so much happiness – maybe greater than any happiness I’ll ever know – with only their family, their friends, and God.

But the real injustice of the Hedonic Treadmill is that the constantly escalating amount of money that goes into powering people’s treadmill workouts could be used to increase the health, safety and security of those who are not lucky enough to make it onto the Treadmill – increasing fundamental determinants of quality of life, and not just increasingly expensive efforts to stay in their current position on top of the conveyor belt. I’ve met young Filipinos who had to stop their university studies for half a year or longer because they were 1000 pesos (around $25 US) short on tuition. In other words, there are people out there for whom 1000 pesos is enough for them to realize their dreams, to complete the application requirements for a new job, or to avoid being kicked out of their homes. On the other hand, I feel a burning sense of shame when I consider what 1000 pesos really means to me, and how much happiness I could actually buy with at this point in my treadmill ride. (More than you’d think, considering that I’d rather spend it at the palengke than at Vikings, but still not very much.)

I can remember the incredible excitement I felt the first time I stepped on a plane to take a domestic flight within the Philippines – to Cebu, I believe. Or the first time I flew from the Philippines to another Southeast Asian country – Thailand. Now it’s hard for me to get really excited about anything short of visiting a new continent. I still want to see all of the continents, but before I run out of continents, I may have to do a bit of soul-searching. Maybe I’ll have to start giving more to charity before I end up feeling completely like human garbage. Maybe all of us with the luxury of deciding what to do with the money that’s left after we pay for our rent, utilities and groceries – a luxury not afforded to most of the world’s 7 billion human beings – should look past the tired, predictable refrains of “it’s my money, I earned it” and feel a bit garbage-y, too. Because aside from the obvious environmental and social impact of trying to find happiness in disposable consumer products and an ever-expanding carbon footprint, there’s also the damage to – and I kinda hate to use this word – the soul. Maybe by reflecting on the rusted tin cans that clutter up my soul and thinking about what the fundamental, inner determinants of happiness really are, I can get off the treadmill and possibly even help others in the process. And maybe doing that could be worth even more than a new GoPro.

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