by Lloyd H. Whitling

 

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It’s a concept that keeps popping up on my horizon. I feel like it’s time to take hold of it, pull it toward the middle of my attention span, and give it a good look. Will it just be another religious ploy to find something else to condemn (seems like they’re losing their influence about the old stuff)? Is it just a buzz-phrase (seems like they have used up all the potentially buzzy single words)? Is it some new innovation by which psychology tries to gain a rhedonismNEWeal understanding about how our minds function?—or to provide one more handle for religion to grab for mind control? Or, is it something entirely new and potentially valuable to know and understand? Well, we shall find out.

 

Let’s start with a blog written by a fellow who calls himself “Joe McDonald,” at <http://joemcdonald.blogspot.com/2009/01/jumping-off-treadmill.html> You can find his requisite nod to Xianity down in the bottom left corner, under “Statement of Faith.” His reference to the hedonic treadmill begins with a quote:

 

“The problem is that pay raises, new lovers, new jewelry, and new jobs can all seem exciting and rewarding at first, but over time you adjust, and their emotional luster dims. What was once thrilling eventually seems no more than mildly pleasant. Brickman called this phenomenon – the idea that people can chase emotional highs but adaptation will drag them back to a neutral mood – the ‘hedonic treadmill.’” – Ed Diener

 

… and faith provides a cure? I have no idea whether the misspellings in the quote belong to Diener or McDonald, but I corrected them above. The quote somewhat adheres to the Xian line that hedonism is all about pleasure only, even though what the man said is true and something that even the ancients recognized (even though their followers kind-of omitted it from their practices by practicing sensualism while espousing hedonism). Following the quote, McDonald suggests, “Why play around in the tired old moments of the past? Today and tomorrow are filled with opportunity to do something different – read something funny, run an errand by taking a new route, watch some news for current events, buy a new magazine, take a jog, organize something that’s been disorderly for a while.”

 

And then, after suggesting all those pleasurable things a hedonist would find right and proper, he asks, “Why be a hedonist?” There, he leaves us hanging in dazed befuddlement. We can only assume, after the thought processes revive, that his Xian leanings have affected his inability to recognize pleasurable stimuli and to differentiate the psycho- from the physio-.

 

So, we go on, looking for fertile grounds laid over a base of factual materials. Wikipedia is always an interesting stop when looking for explanations of all kinds of concepts. There, we learn Brickman and Campbell coined the term “Hedonic Treadmill” in their essay “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society” (1971), which appeared in M.H. Apley, ed., Adaptation Level Theory: A Symposium, New York: Academic Press, 1971, pp 287-302. Very good to know, maybe.

 

But then, they go on to inform the reader how a fellow named Michael Eysenck, a British psychology researcher during the late nineties, modified the idea to refer to an economics theory that compares pursuit of happiness to a person on a treadmill, who has to keep working just to stay in the same place.

 

What a bunch of choices that picture generates in our heads: If the person on the treadmill stops at all, he gets pitched onto the floor, maybe injured. It generates a not necessarily inaccurate image of what hedonism represents, which is modern life itself. It most certainly generates an accurate image of the average person’s employment status, especially those employed at the bottom of the scale. It is not pleasure those are after, it is survival and relief from hunger. They get put on the treadmill sometime around the achievement of adulthood, and start cranking from paycheck to paycheck, all their savings leeched away by doctors, maintenance, fiscal mayhem, and the Koch brothers.

 

Or, does that merely present an image from my own wage-earning experiences? Maybe so, but let’s look at what they call the Concise Definition: “The tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals.”

 

Okay, that agrees with the concept called ‘homeostasis,’ the physiological aim for internal and external balance typical of all kinds of organisms. They go on: “According to the hedonic treadmill, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.” That does not make it anything different than a statement in recognition of homeostasis, and so nothing with which we should disagree, as homeostasis describes a healthy, factual, mostly automatic drive for all forms of life, wherein their life-processes automatically adapt to changing circumstances. The need to maintain a state of equilibrium forms the ‘Gaian’ part of Gaian Hedonism and is what this site stands up for. My “big name” for it is Equatarianism. Disparaging what Mother Nature has handed us serves no purpose, in my estimation, and accomplishes nothing, but we can glean lessons from others’ attempts to do so. Think: Consider the elevated stress that could result from making no success in life, no effort, and living with the dreams dying unattempted.

 

Similar definitions are offered at: http://www.wordspy.com/words/hedonictreadmill.asp that adds this surprising bit of information: “Studies show that happiness rises with incomes — up to the point at which basic needs are met, after which it stagnates as aspirations also rise with income. The recent Nobel Prize-winning economist and psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls this a “hedonic treadmill.” Like the proverbial rats, we run faster and faster — and so do our aspirations — but the bottom line is the old cliche: Money can’t buy happiness.”
—Andrew L. Yarrow, “Utopia lost,” Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2006 “Up to the point at which basic needs are met,” eh? He thinks the drive to stay alive and keep the bills paid doesn’t count as ‘aspirations’? Is there happiness to be found in starving into a homeless death?

 

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Back in the previous century, around about the middle, Abraham Maslow suggested the concept of self-actualization, which can only occur among those whose relative financial freedom enables them to start a search toward defining and finding their own personal goals. Money can’t buy happiness, maybe, but it can help one look for it. The joy of finding fleeting moments of it upon each tiny success makes the entire process a healthy, inspiring exercise aimed toward satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Keep that in mind, it’s important.

 

Under the heading, Earliest Citation, they offer: “One of the most surprising conclusions is the extreme difficulty of remaining happy, or unhappy, for any length of time. People rendered paraplegic or quadriplegic were compared in one study with pools winners. Within a year, both registered similar levels of happiness, although there was a slight bias in favour of the able-bodied pools winners. [They must mean ‘swimmers’.—LHW] This strongly supports Eysenck’s theory of a ‘hedonic treadmill’. ‘The trouble is, if nice things happen to you, your expectations go up.’ With no escape from the hedonic treadmill, reducing expectations becomes the key to happiness.
“—T. Lott, ‘Happiness: Three academics look for life’s biggest secret,’ Sunday Herald, April 15, 1990.”

 

Nothing new for us there, so let’s keep looking.

 

What Gaian Hedonism would tell everybody is that maintaining balance promotes the happiness that a search for happiness will fail to find. Our next tab takes us to http://www.utilitarianism.com/misc/index.html , where we are greeted with “The evidence is clear: our wellbeing depends on cooperation and the public good, not personal enrichment.

 

“When God died, GDP took over and economists became the new high priests,” says Polly Toynbee; after which she informs us about Lord (Richard) Layard, the LSE’s director of the centre for economic performance, whose statements she appears to find amazing. We learn here that Lord (Richard) Layard, the LSE’s director of the centre for economic performance, “Despite massive increases in wealth, the level of happiness in western nations has not risen in the last 50 years.” Kinda makes you wonder why, right?—at least enough to continue on down the page, where we find a mention about neuroscience.

 

Yeah, that’s right, science that ends up, without acknowledgment, investigating hedonism in the form of how economics affects our nervous systems. “Forget religions and God,” Polly tells us. Our new priests now count beans, and people’s responses to the possession of them, in order to determine good and bad as indicated by happiness indicators. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman is best known for his work in hedonic psychology.

 

Astounding information that begs for verification gets discovered here. Mister Kahneman suggests (she says) that the rich cause a general rise in unhappiness by increasing the gap between their fiscal level and what the common person earns. We meet up with budding author and economics center director, Lord Richard Layard, who proposes a “polluter pays” type of tax against the rich, supposedly meant to increase the sense of justice felt in the lower ranks to alleviate some of their unhappiness.

 

Now is when we find the term “hedonic treadmill” that took our search engine to this page. From it we glean the suggestion that politicians forget economics-based promises, and start advocating changes and projects designed to increase national gladness. Suggestions: Increase education and resources devoted to mental health to acquire quick gains. Increase levels of employment while protecting workers and offering them better treatment. Stop moving workers to different locations, especially away from their families and communities. Advocate for the common good as common values and trust determine it. Advocate for education, and actually follow through on that.

 

And then, there is the ubiquitous call against hedonism that submits to religious propaganda, the “culture of endlessly pursuing personal pleasure, regardless of the needs of others.” It boggles the mind, that people can be so misinformed, and so far off target when they so mis-identify a philosophy and represent it to be a synonym for commercial materialism, sensualism. Where are those who advocate for honesty? Why can hedonism not be what it is, a search for a balanced happiness that looks on all sides of each issue to find it, to gain a handle hold on it, aim for life to be a pleasure to live, and let the “culture of endlessly pursuing personal pleasure” get bandied about under some other label, such as ‘sensualism’?— or other, more relevant name, such as ‘gluttonism?’ Where did Epicurus’ cry for moderation disappear to? And, importantly and most pertinently, why so little recognition for the role homeostasis plays throughout the animal realm? Give homeostasis/homeorhesis a go, and watch the lights of insight go on, and the complaints about a “treadmill” disappear. That treadmill means we are alive; don’t knock it! We all run on it until we stop breathing, whatever our beliefs.

 

So, let’s try redefining that right now. Maybe we will find it useful, or not, but only in the application can we determine that. [Gluttonism: the culture of endlessly pursuing personal pleasure, regardless of the needs of others; sensualism.] versus [Hedonism: the philosophy of balancing pleasure and pain in the process of natural homeostasis such as Epicurus identified with the term ‘ataraxia’.] If you doubt my definition for hedonism, go study up on Epicurus and the ancient Greeks, including Aristotle, Plato, Aristippus of Cyrene, Archytas, Polyarchus (via Athenaeus), the poet Lucretius, ALL the writings of Thomas Jefferson. and then Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, John Piper after which subjects of interest must include Homeostasis, Eudemonics (or Eudamonics or Eudaimonics), ataraxia, homeorhesis and whatever all of that will lead your inquisitive mind toward. I would suggest you begin here for so long as it lasts: https://hedonix.wordpress.com/2013/08/10/hedonisms-long-history/

 

¡¡¡Whew!!!

 

Now, continuing on with following where our browser tabs take us, we arrive at http://rasmussenanders.blogspot.com/2008/10/positive-psychology-and-hedonic.html and another fantastic name gets dropped. Paul Bloom apparently teaches Introductory Psychology at Yale University, the last session of which deals with happiness. Nick Baylis lectures on “Positive Psychology” which ostensibly focuses on wellbeing and health, rather than the ill view of past centuries, and studies about what makes the differences between them. The gist seems to be that self-perceived happiness is subject to variables brought on by changing events as we experience them and are subject to their influences, and that we tend to recover from definite traumas, for the most part, to a previous level, but there seems to be no way open for us to permanently increase that level. Depressing? Don’t feel bad; just be glad if you don’t suffer from depression.

 

For me, it seems like it’s from that, that the phrase ‘hedonic treadmill’ arises as a concept that people have turned into a three-headed monster. Which head you choose apparently depends a lot on your inherent attitudes toward life. In fact, it helps to imagine the machine to represent life itself. Those who choose the head of displeasure will naturally see the treadmill as a whimsical master of whom or which one must maintain constant awareness, ready to jump in response to any sudden variations in the machine’s performance in order to avoid getting dumped by it.

 

Those who choose the happiness head will regard the machine as a fun toy, a challenge, a source of repeated joy and pleasure, from which we can see that happiness and pleasure depend upon continual activity. Ahah! The Treadmill to Nowhere!

 

Those who prefer the neutral head will look for increased understanding of the way it works, seek to find ways to benefit from it, and (perhaps) attempt to benefit others according to any advances in their own understanding of it.

 

It should be easy to spot which of those heads any writer or speaker addresses as you wade through their handiwork.

 

That plastic surgeons measurably accomplish what no other persons on Earth have been capable of seems interesting, but, now we have arrived at a place for a new tab:

 

http://www.happiness-project.com/happiness_project/2007/07/this-wednesda-3.html takes us to Gretchen Rubin’s site (if I have interpreted correctly) where we get confronted by the notion that the less money people have, the easier it is to get happy. No wonder there are so many poor people in the world!

 

Once again, we find a list that supports what we have already learned, that maintaining strong bonds with family, friends, community promotes personal happiness. Obvious is to do what is fun, tend to your own priorities, remove the pressures from your life, including those of debt, a hated job, a neighborhood that causes you worry. Doing all of that promotes equilibrium and a sense of balanced living. Not so obvious is that tending to your marital life in a positive fashion serves to also reduce stress, and at the same time strengthens your sense of community and belonging, and balance. Exercise and good, nourishing food have often been touted as promoters of well-being, ought to be obvious if you think about it, and it gets repeated on this site’s page. To spend money on someone else seems to go against the grain of our naturally selfish survival instincts, but a good case can be made for it also being a way to promote your future survival and as a way to feel better about yourself in the present, as well as the likelihood it has something to do with your sense of equilibrium and place (kind of on the order of a rent payment). I have bookmarked this site for future visits, as I think the woman has something good going on here.

 

Guess what! Google has an “Answer Page”, and I found an example at http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=165813 .

 

Typical on the page is Researchers Brickman and Campbell’s argument that all individuals labor on a hedonic treadmill:

 

“As we rise in accomplishments and possessions, our expectations also rise. Soon we get used to the new level and it no longer makes us happy.”
—University of California Regents < http://ucsfhr.ucsf.edu/hrupdate/update200202.htm  >— It baffles me that none of these people promoting happiness as an aim of hedonism, including (apparently) Thomas Jefferson, have figured out that balance (ataraxia or eudemonia in Epicurus’ vocabulary) is hedonism’s true aim.

 

At our next tab, http://www.mrsmicah.com/2008/02/25/saving-money-by-circumventing-the-hedonic-treadmill/ the investigator finds a realistic and practical way to deal with this treadmill that seems to be such an inescapable feature of our psychophysical existence.

 

“People are adaptable,” writes this unsigned person. “We quickly adjust to a new life circumstance—for better or worse—and consider it normal. Although this helps us when our situation worsens, it means that when circumstances improve, we soon become hardened to new comforts or privileges. Scoring air-conditioning, a bigger house, or a fancy title gives us only a brief boost in happiness before we start to take it for granted. As Aldous Huxley wrote, ‘Habit converts luxurious enjoyments into dull and daily necessities.’ That’s the hedonic treadmill.”

 

Acknowledge hedonic adaptation, the writer suggests, and learn to work around it. It would be best to go to the page and read it without my input, as it seems quite straightforward and, but for one tiny item (I’ll keep that secret for just right now) seems quite complete.

 

Which takes us now to Oliver Burkeman’s http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2007/mar/03/healthandwellbeing.features3  where once more we make kissyface with “‘Habit converts luxurious enjoyments into dull and daily necessities,’ Aldous Huxley wrote, and I like to imagine the thought occurring to him as he sat at the wheel of his Lexus – the one with the in-car DVD player he was so excited about when he got it six months earlier. You want something because you think it’ll make you happy, and maybe it does, briefly. But then the new thing loses its shine and you revert to your earlier, less happy state. This is the ‘hedonic treadmill’, and we all seem to be trapped on it.”

 

In words that serve to reinforce our previous tab’s author, Mister Burkeman quotes, ‘“The exciting idea here,’ Mike McCullough told me, ‘is that you might be able to recover some of the hedonic benefits from past events.’” Maybe we are approaching actually usable information. I hope so, as I would find great (if temporary) sensualistic, pain-free satisfaction from such a rare event.

 

Mister Burkeman espouses gratitude journals, that (he claims) research has shown to actually be effective for the reintroduction they give to the “newness” features of some thing or event that once made life seem more pleasurable. They don’t always show people to be all that nice, he says, although I expect that expressing gratitude in writing about something that made one feel grateful for another’s suffering might be just as effective as actually performing an altruistic deed or having someone voluntarily do one for you. Cheaper, too.

 

And so, we arrive at long last to our final tab, linked to http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/article723047.ece  and a Times Online UK article written by Carol Midgley. “…study after study shows that money fails to buy happiness. Incomes have increased threefold in Britain since 1950 but contentment levels have barely shifted.”

 

Are we going to learn that inflation plays a large part in that, so that threefold increase amounts to actually less buying power for today’s wage earner than for the same position in the 1950s? No, I suppose not.

 

Instead, she refers to a report written by James Montier, she describes as “a strategist [who] wants to know what makes people tick.” Entitled ‘It Doesn’t Pay: Materialism and the Pursuit of Happiness’ it warns us that, once past the level of income that proves adequate to meet your needs, not to equate money or material possessions with happiness. Material possessions are subject to the hedonic treadmill. Experiences are not, so spend your money on them rather than possessions.

 

Finally!— someone who recognizes a gluttonous credo’s nature as materialism. What bothers me is that still is not the correct term for what actually (I insist) amounts to sensualism. Materialism actually presents the atheistic view of the material universe, hails from the time of Epicurus, and is the basis for the scientific method. Its alternate guise refers to the accumulation of possessions. Sensualism represents the reasons for such accumulation, and should include the sales pitches to which those who chase after sensual pleasures respond, and should acknowledge that those sales pitches often come from religious organizations (as in the 75 virgins as a reward for murdering infidels; Heaven as a promise; temporal bliss as a promise, etc..)

 

I heartily recommend reading this page and all the others, on top of what I demanded (ever-so-gently) at the start. We now have arrived at my own tab, where I will once again repeat my own mantra, albeit this time backed up by your having already read my sampled references. Go ahead, when you finish this, and look for other pages using your own search engine. There appears to be more pages about it than a room full of students could study in one semester. You’d almost think somebody cares. I feel unconvinced.

 

So, what secret have I left for last, so I can explain it to you here, now? My mantra goes all the way back to ancient Greek philosophy to find its roots, and begins with “Know Thyself,” the maxim accredited to Thales (per WIKIPEDIA).

 

That directive forms the roots according to which you will apply yourself to the secret I saved for this very spot. Accomplishment, the very sense of it, according to whatever it is that gives you joy in the performance of and in which gaining recognition would provide you satisfaction, satisfies the creative, expressive drive that makes us the very most human and keeps us from becoming zombies. Accomplishment requires a conscious sense of aim to direct it, to steer toward it, to know when you have arrived a thousand times at little goals that serve as measures to prompt you onwards.

 

This hedonic treadmill so many of us fail to properly understand is made for this, that you can gain pleasure along the way but not be tempted to consider yourself fulfilled by only a portion of whatever attainments you may be after. You gain satisfaction for those tiny steps you accomplish while working toward the lifetime aims you establish for yourself, but you meanwhile gain needed experience, and rest to build up energy toward your next accomplishment. The treadmill rolls while you let it catch up to you, and then it becomes your turn to keep up with it.

 

We eat, and then get hungry. We sleep, and then we get tired. We breathe, and then must breathe again. We are alive, and so subject to the natural pressures applied by the fact of that, whether we choose to go after accomplishments, or to settle into a stifling rut. That advanced thinkers in our own time have given their recognition to that grants it authenticity, whether we choose to disavow it and live in denial of it, or to accept it as a fact of life and try to figure out how best to put it to use so we can gain some benefits. We are hedonists whether or not we approve of it, and whether or not we choose to maintain as best we can a sense of balance and stability in our personal lives and our communities, or endure the stress induced by disavowing, denying, or by enforced ignorance of our own very real animal needs. We are hedonists whose needs run a gamut of maintenance requirements, whether we choose gluttony, dour austerity, or to sustain a state of all around balance.

 

“Happiness is not a destination,” said a man named Burton Hills, “It is a method of life.” What makes us happy, even if oh, so fleeting, is whatever improves upon our balanced state. That we become happy (or attain a sense of pleasure) establishes the point at which balance is achieved. That we soon feel a need for further efforts (usually rephrased as ‘indulgence’ by moralizers) establishes need for further maintenance. It does not inform us, for so long as we so avidly avoid self-awareness, about exactly what must be maintained. That we tend toward gluttony may be a direct result of that state of enforced ignorance in which so many of us live. That costs us dearly.

 

Contemplate, for a moment, the stress-filled lives that have so terribly increased our tendency toward disease and mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction, over-populated prisons, and all of that. Look at the state of the world, let alone your own community, and see what a state of mental and physical squalor attempting to disavow the hedonic treadmill has left us with. Look at any specific area of the world, and you can quickly figure out the key determinants for unbalanced lives in those places.

 

Then, do the same assessment for your own locale, and then for your own personal existence. Unhappiness, whether your own or sensed in those around you, indicates an unbalanced status in some respect, that your natural senses are trying to alert you about. It is up to you, and those around you, to acknowledge that and to determine the nature of it.

 

That hedonism is not materialism nor strictly sensualism was recognized by the ancient Greek philosophers, when they proposed the importance of this awareness, and attempted to understand it according to the knowledge of their times. That we misunderstand that in our own, supposedly enlightened era, has to be a testament to the power of purposeful stupefaction through ingestion of creative misinformation. That science is only now beginning to catch on and get a handle on it has to be a statement about our human willingness to suffer rather than do what is right for ourselves and those we love. We should feel the pain of shame for that, and then set about the task of learning how to achieve a state of balance —equilibrium— that would eliminate it from our lives. Do what the ancient philosopher so cogently advised: “Know thyself!”

 

Go. Do that.

 

Copyright ©2014 by Lloyd H. Whitling. Permission to excerpt is granted if accompanied with credit to the author. Permission to reuse unchanged is granted only if accompanied with this notice and proper credit. All other rights reserved.

 

 

 

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