Getting off the Hedonic Treadmill: Buddhism

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As humans we spend most of our lives in a state of perpetual craving and desire. We land a big promotion at work, but soon fantasize about continuing to move up the corporate ladder. We become consumed by discontent and dissatisfaction as we constantly compare our social standing to that of our peers.  Wealth, status and power are engrained in our cultural ethos. However, all these pursuits are elusive. The temporary pleasure that we receive from these aims quickly fades as we relentlessly try to fill the void.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the ‘hedonic treadmill’ (also known as the hedonic adaptation).  The concept states that despite the events we experience (positive or negative), we always revert back to our ‘baseline’ level of contentment or happiness. While we may feel initial euphoria after experiencing something pleasurable, diminishing returns kicks in and we soon crave for more. Look at the surprising fortune of lottery winners. Many think that if only I could I win the lottery than surely all my problems could be solved. They imagine this would enable them to live a carefree life of eternal bliss. Despite these fantasies, this reality is quite different. One study demonstrated that lottery winners were not any happier than those who did not win the lottery 18 months after wining. The excitement and dopamine rush that you once felt when you won soon fades. Moreover, the grand lifestyle that you become accustomed to inhibits you from finding joy in the everyday mundane aspects of life. The same is true of attaining other milestones in life such as winning a championship or getting a promotion.

Yuval Noah Harari summarizes this sentiment in his book Sapiens,

When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things such as pain. As long as pain continues we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify.

As I argued in my previous article, our desire for pleasure makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.  Humans need a signal to motivate them to ensure their survival, to eat, to reproduce  pass on their genes to the next generation.  Yet our inability to detach from pleasure and our longing for more is one of the main causes of human misery. It is synonymous to being on a treadmill, running faster and faster, yet going nowhere.

So the question remains – how does one end this cycle of discontent and get off the ‘hedonic treadmill’? One piece of wisdom comes from the Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. He taught that we ought to accept things as they are without craving. Refrain from immediate intuitive judgements about our experience, and let things be as they will be. For instance, if we experience something pleasant be cognizant of the fleeting nature of this emotion and do not be distressed when it passes.

To achieve this state of mind the Buddha developed a set of mediation techniques which were aimed at allowing one to be aware of the contents of their consciousness and focus on the present moment. While it comes in many forms the most common form of meditation is ‘mindfulness meditation’ in which one pays attention to their present experience using the breath as an anchor. One will quickly realize the inherent chaos and noise in their minds. In meditation the task is straight forward, acknowledge the thought and return back to the breath. However, as many who have attempted meditation know it is far too easy to get distracted and lost in thought.

What this practice allows us to do is to detach from our thoughts, emotions and yearnings. It enables us to see the futility of our efforts to intensify or extend pleasure. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal of these meditation techniques is to achieve a state called ‘enlightenment’.  Enlightenment is a state of mind in which an individual is liberated from the ego, the constant ‘mental chatter’ and from the cognitive and emotional distortions that are so pervasive in our day to day experience. As Joseph Goldstein states, it is “the mind of non-clinging, non-fixation, nonattachment to anything at all. It’s the mind of open groundlessness.” Attaining enlightenment doesn’t require us to achieve a particular goal or chase after an experience. Rather, it is available to us when our minds are grounded in the present moment, and we are liberated from our ego.

Going forward, I will refrain from discussing the metaphysical or religious aspects of Buddhism, but focus mainly on the key aspects of the Buddhist doctrine from a naturalistic or scientific paradigm. Moreover, I want to demystify these concepts and ideas and ground them in the scientific literature.  In in my next article I will focus on what science is saying about mindfulness meditation.

Till next time,

AA

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