...[T]hrough habituation and social comparison, we find ourselves in a no-win situation in which no level of income or consumption remains satisfying for long — the hedonic treadmill. The more people seek to boost consumption, the more income they require and the harder and longer they must work, undermining those activities that are actually fulfilling and satisfying…
On our hedonic treadmill, like the Red Queen in Alice’s adventures, we seemingly have to run at full steam just to stay still. Might our real mistake be that we’re chasing the wrong things? Is there a mass misdiagnosis of our needs?
Technological and other cultural evolution have supplanted biological evolution as the prime drivers of change for humans and for Earth. The culturally-dominated modern environment is profoundly different from the evolutionary environment that shaped us, and life for most in developed western countries (despite a growing class of the left-behind) is characterized by abundance rather than scarcity of material resources. Why can’t we just relax in comfort? Might our evolutionary programming now be leading us astray?
Because our antennae sense relative rather than absolute need, unquenchable human longing follows a seemingly endless trail of desires and aversions. Constant comparison and competition drive an undercurrent of discontent – the wish for more, different, better things. The hyper-capitalist economies of English-speaking countries feed and amplify this discontent to a fever pitch while enticing the individual to invest ever more exclusively in an all-consuming work life to finance material acquisition and social status.
Work life crowds out the relationships and diverse activities that would otherwise enrich life. The individual’s overreliance on his work for so much of his sense of well-being and self-worth leaves him in a precarious position, in thrall to others who are under intense pressure to optimize his contribution as a resource rather than his well-being as a complex person.
Our human longing is telling us something, but we are misunderstanding the ache we feel. Beyond a quite basic level of material need, our satisfaction, happiness and well-being aren’t to be found in an increasing reliance on material wealth, a narrowing focus on extrinsic success and a shrinking sphere of concern limited to our most basic drives. As with all addictions, satisfying one desire brings a brief sense of bliss followed by the rapid arousal of yet more subjective ‘needs’. Desires, like cancerous cells, multiply and refuse to die.
Our true satisfaction is best served by freeing ourselves from the shackles of our multiplying desires. Our lives become richer when we place proper value on our own time and energy, when we nurture the most durable and important external ‘assets’ we have, our relationships with others.
All the harder, I know, when our ‘communication’ technologies (like where you are reading this) are in truth finely-tuned mechanisms for stoking exactly the covetousness that keeps the hedonic treadmill turning.
I read an unfortunate story in the news some years ago. An elderly man, suffering from dementia and obviously not fit to be behind the wheel of a car, accidentally turned into Third Street Promenade, a pedestrianised street in Santa Monica, California. Realising that something was wrong, he pressed down his foot to brake, but his foot was on the accelerator. The car sped forward. The man could tell something was wrong, as people leapt out of his way or bounced off his bumper. He just didn’t realize he needed to shift his foot to stomp on a different pedal. He pressed harder and harder on the accelerator in his efforts to stop, and the car sped down the crowded plaza, killing a number of people before crashing to a stop.
The man didn’t understand what was going on. First of all, these people shouldn’t be in the middle of a road. He was in a car, and cars travel where people are not. He found himself in an environment that didn’t fit with his (deteriorating) understanding of driving. Second, he failed in his corrective actions. He knew he should slow down. He knew that he needed to press down his foot to brake. But his automatic muscle memory that should have shifted his foot to the brake pedal from the accelerator wasn’t functioning properly. From his perspective, he was braking, but inexplicably, the car was rocketing forward. All he could do in his confused state was continue pushing his foot down, because that was supposed to work.
While this is not a perfect analogy for our mind in the modern environment, I think that there may be some illuminating parallels. We’re not seeing the world clearly. Our evolutionary and historically-programmed short-cuts are unreliable in a much-changed world. We’re pushing on the wrong pedals in our efforts to improve our situations.