Do you hold the belief that if you work hard, you’ll be able to buy more of what you want and then you’ll be happy? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.  It’s not going to happen.  You’re just going to get stuck on what is called the Hedonic Treadmill.


The Hedonic Treadmill Theory, developed by Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell, describes how despite how much we consume, we never feel happier in the long term. The reason being, that no matter how much money we make and how much we are able to consume, our expectations and desires rise in tandem. So, we never feel any happier.  Instead, we keep working harder and harder, so that we earn more and more, to enable us to keep on consuming, hoping that it will make us happy, but it never does!


Why do we get on the Hedonic Treadmill?


It’s all about self-esteem. While the phrase ‘self-esteem’ was coined by the philosopher and psychologist William James in 1890, it has been a popular concept for research and application since the 1960s and developed into a ‘movement’ in the 1980s. Society’s increasing emphasis on self-esteem is the result of us increasingly becoming separated from ourselves.


How can we become separated from ourselves?  Within our psyche we have a number of ‘selves’.  Two of which are the ego and the Self (capitalised).  The ego is constructed identity that we like to present to the world. It is our self-image or mask. In everyday language, when we use the word ‘me’, we are often referring to our ego. It is our self-identity. The Self is the core of our being, not conditioned by everyday life experiences, and it does not need defending. It is often referred to as being the ‘higher Self’ or the ‘soul’ and can connect us to our spirituality.


When we separate from our Self our ego becomes isolated and vulnerable.  We, therefore, continually need to support and defend it, which we do by focusing on increasing our self-esteem.  We tend to do this by comparing ourselves against other people in our social groups in terms of appearance, capability, achievements, etc. If we come out on top, we feel good and our self-esteem rises. However, we tend to feel shame when our comparisons do not meet the expectations set by ourselves or others and our self-esteem lowers. Since our ego does not like to feel shame, we try to protect ourselves by promoting our achievements through working harder, earning more and then being more conspicuous in our consuming.


The Three Dangers of Getting Stuck on the Hedonic Treadmill


Conspicuous consumption is the practice of purchasing luxury goods or services to display wealth and status. Conspicuous consumption, consuming more than is practically needed, appears to increase with wealth. The wealthier we become, the more we have to lose in the social comparisons with the people in our peer groups. According to the World Bank, in 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world’s people accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption while the poorest 20% accounted for just 1.5%.  We just cannot continue to consume as we do. At the current level of consumption, we need 1.7 Earths to sustain us (Global Footprint Network, 2017). By 2050, we will need 3 Earths to meet our consumption levels (United Nations, 2018).


When overused, a focus on increasing self-esteem can lead to perfectionism. This should not be confused with conscientiousness and diligence. People who are conscientious and diligent endeavour ‘simply’ to do a good job, while perfectionists endeavour to do a good job so they can feel good about themselves. Numerous studies have found perfectionism is increasing in westernised societies. For example, a meta-analysis, carried out by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill in 2019, of 164 research studies from 1989–2016 involving American, British and Canadian college students found an overall increase in perfectionism of 33%. Socially oriented perfectionism showed the greatest increase reflecting the increasingly competitive nature of our society. It appears that increasing competition, especially in the form of social comparisons, makes people more self-critical. Other studies have found people with high levels of perfectionism tend to suffer from anxiety and depression.


By separating from our Self, we are increasingly losing our sense of what is meaningful in our lives and, therefore, what gives our life purpose. In 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA carried out research that found that about 4 out of 10 Americans had not yet discovered a satisfying life purpose. It is likely to be the same ratio in other westernised societies. Without meaning and purpose, we lose our resilience and become susceptible to mental illness. Research increasingly shows that people with a strong sense of purpose in life tend to demonstrate higher mental health, well-being and cognitive functioning.


Getting off the Hedonic Treadmill


Reconnecting with our Self (our soul) can lead to finding greater purpose and meaning in our lives. Researchers have consistently found that meaningfulness is a motivating factor and more important than other factors such as pay and working conditions in the workplace. Consequently, for some people, work can literally give them their ‘soul purpose’. Yet for others, work can be ‘soul-destroying’. ‘Purpose’ is a stable and generalised intention to accomplish something that is personally meaningful and, at the same time, leads to productive engagement with some aspect of the world beyond the ego. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, following his experience in the Auschwitz concentration camp, concluded that having meaning and purpose in our lives can lead to us developing greater resilience, which improves our psychological health. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl identified three main ways of realising meaning and purpose in life. These were making a difference in the world through our work, encountering love and adopting a courageous attitude in situations of unavoidable suffering.


By reconnecting with our Self we will be able to find greater meaning and purpose in our lives and our ego will feel less vulnerable.  Consequently, we will be less focused on raising our self-esteem through working hard and consuming conspicuously.  We can get off the Hedonic Treadmill. As the philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche said, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.’


Written by Terence Sexton

Date 3rd August 2021


Extracted and abridged from Consciousness Beyond Consumerism: A Psychological Path to Sustainability.

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