Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Hedonic Treadmill and the Pursuit of Happiness

I recently read a post by Joel Canfield from Lateral Action that talks about self-employment and how having a "real job" might not necessarily be what we really want.  Part of what he discusses is the concept of a hedonic treadmill--the endless cycle we put ourselves into when we try to support our interests and habits.

See, the treadmill effect kicks in when we get what we want.  When we actually achieve our goals, or collect the materialistic "things" we think we need, it is the natural human tendency to eventually desire the next step in the chain or the next big thing.  It's difficult to turn away--we are exposed to a culture that tells us we need the latest clothing, the newest car, the best computer.  It happens to everyone regardless of financial standing.  We find ourselves purchasing new clothing for every "season", a new car every 3 years, or upgrading to a new computer every other year..  It's pricey to do that, and we often find we are working not so much to get what we want but to simply "keep up".  We find that we aren't satisfied with our latest toy and yearn for the next step up to the bigger toy with more features.

The hedonic treadmill is what makes many of our industries survive--fashion, technology...  Well, it's sort of at the heart of capitalism itself:  supply and demand.  However, when we let that treadmill motivate our demand, we end up wanting more.  Bigger.  Better.  The Next Big Thing.  And we figure out ways to pay for it.  Or we don't... Much of what makes our economic crisis in the US so painful is that many people have discovered they've been running on that treadmill for a while and have over extended themselves...

So we have a culturally instilled desire to want more.  It's easy to subscribe to the concept when it's written in your constitution:  life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are all pretty high on our list of entitlements.  When our happiness is consistently being redefined for us, it's difficult to determine what it is...  "If I just get the next thing that everyone thinks is cool" one thinks, "I'll be happy then because everyone will think better of me."

There's a saying:  The hardest part of the pursuit of happiness is knowing when you've caught up with it.  Recognizing when to get off the treadmill and enjoy what you've got is really tough, especially when no one wants you to get off it because you'll stop spending money.  Pausing the ride is okay, but you better get back on soon!  Stepping away from the treadmill entirely is tantamount to social ostracism.  Witness those that are dissed for dressing in fashions a decade too old, or owning a computer that isn't capable of running the latest computer game, or driving a car that is just starting to see a bit of wear and tear.

Being an artist doesn't help when you're trying to get off the hedonic treadmill.  Oftentimes, the desire for the latest website, tool, easle, or craft material replaces the need for the most stylish clothing or cutting edge computer program.  And the pursuit of happiness continues.  Constantly chasing something "better", and rarely truly appreciating what we've already got.

I would urge you to step back and consider what it is that you're chasing.  What do you think you need?  Are you creating art to feed the machine?  Or is your art supplying a demand that is outside the hedonic treadmill?

Food for thought.  Live Life with Relish!

Top image by metaphoricalplatypus via Flickr.  Creative Commons License.
Middle image by SashaW via Flickr.  Creative Commons License.
Bottom image by burge5k via Flickr.  Creative Commons License.

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