Stepping off the hedonic treadmill

By Art Markman, Ph.D

My grandfather, Emanuel Gold, died on July 6, 2009 at the age of 92. By conventional historical standards, he was not a great man. A million people did not clamor for tickets to his funeral. He was a very good and decent man, though. One who cared a lot about his family and who led by example. All of his grandchildren were asked to say a few words at his funeral. In putting together my remarks, I realized that I had learned a number of valuable life lessons from my grandfather. And because CNN is not releasing podcasts of the funeral, I wanted to share a few of those lessons here.

The first of those lessons was that it is important to make a good living, but not important to make a great one. Like many people who lived through the Great Depression (the one in the 1920s, not the Great Recession going on right now), my grandfather experienced tough times. His family struggled to make ends meet. As a result, he was very concerned with having enough money to pay for the necessities.

Obviously, we all care about being able to deal with our true needs. In the 1940's Abraham Maslow argued that people are first concerned with their basic bodily and security needs

For my grandfather, though, once he was sure that those basic needs would always be met, he was not concerned with accumulating stuff. He was content to drive his cars until they started to break down (or until a grandchild with a new driver's license asked if he could have it). His house did not have to have the latest gadget. He did not have to dress in the latest fashions.

The Psychologist Danny Kahneman talks about the hedonic treadmill. He argues that people set goals and aspirations that they seek to achieve. They may feel unsettled when they have a goal that they have not satisfied, and that motivates them to aim to achieve the goal. Once people achieve these goals, they are briefly satisfied, but then the motivational system will set a new goal or aspiration that goes beyond what they have achieved, and once again they will feel unsettled until they achieve this next goal. Because aspirations are constantly being reset further away, Kahneman argues people are rarely satisfied with what they have at that moment.

My grandfather found a way to step off the hedonic treadmill. He had what he needed, and he seemed content with that. Perhaps more importantly, he passed that on to his grandchildren in the way that he talked to us about our careers. Because I chose to go into academia, my grandfather was always concerned that I would have trouble making a living. (I guess the stereotype of the starving academic was a strong one for him.) Over the last 20 years, whenever I saw him, he would ask if I was doing ok...financially. When I assured him that I was doing fine, he never went further. There was never a sense that he felt you had to be doing better than ok financially. After that, he just wanted to know if I was happy.

The hedonic treadmill is an easy one to get on. It is easy to begin to take your current life for granted and to seek the next level of fulfillment. But the hedonic treadmill is not a necessary part of human experience. At some point, it is fine to just enjoy what you have.


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