The hedonic treadmill

Here is the basic assertion of our economy: the needs of human beings are infinite (… but the means to fulfill them are finite, so we have to be economical). Infinite needs are surely observable, but what’s the reason behind? From an evolutionist perspective it looks like this:

“And there are more anthropological constants: our emotional self-model makes it possible to consciously feel ourselves. It drives us forward in the steady attempt to feel good, to find emotional stability, protection and security. We are biological systems which are damned to search for happiness, which must try to feel as good as possible. But unfortunately, the reward system in our brain and our emotional self-model allow no stable kind of feeling good.

Admitted that especially the conscious self-models brought experiencing joy and happiness into the physical universe – to a place where these did not exist before. But psychological evolution did not optimize us for permanent happiness. On the contrary: it put us on the “hedonic treadmill“, which is driven by the permanent attempt to experience happiness and joy and to avoid pain and depression. But we also are kept in permanent motion: the hedonic treadmill – concretely the reward system in our brain – is the engine which mother nature built into us. We might discover its structure in ourselves, but it is unclear if we can ever get out of this treadmill. In some sense we are this structure. The Ego is the hedonic treadmill.”

[Thomas Metzinger: Der Preis der Selbsterkenntnis; in: Gehirn und Geist; 7-8/2006; S. 46; original in German; emphasis per original; hyperlink added to original]

We’re not interested in evolution here but in happiness: this guy thinks, permanent happiness cannot be found because the steady longing for happiness is the engine that drives all the people in this world with their lifestyle and “great achievements”. (By the way, if you need to know what’s a treadmill … .) It’s not that we want to live the way we do, but we’re driven by the search for happiness. And it’s not that we want to create, build, achieve something, but we’re again driven. Surely one finds the “hedonic treadmill” idea inspired and confirmed by so many experiences of private and public life.

Now, should we feel happy about working constantly (on “improving” circumstances) just to retain our level of happiness? That’s what the hedonic treadmill means. Up to a reasonable level of life quaity, the treadmill does a good job: it allows to feel happy while working on necessary improvements, i.e. to feel happier than “allowable” with respect to the amount of work done. And it enables humans to gain dominance over the rest of nature, which is not equipped with this treadmill thing. But after our basic needs are met, the treadmill thing should stop, and allow to do further improvements as creative freetime work, just for the fun of it, and just if one wishes to do so. But it does never stop, it has gone mad. It drives people further and further, stressing them with a desperate need for more happiness, for absolute happiness. But this need is never fulfilled, as it is not the idea behind the hedonic treadmill to produce this (but instead, to give motivation and reward while working on necessary improvements; any other use of the mechanism is actually abuse of this biological system).

Just, people seem not to realize this wrong direction of their search. They naively extrapolate that the “inner reward” they receive when reaching goals will be proportional to the goal reached, so try to reach goals that high that the reward remains for the rest of their life. Instead, the reward mechanism has a built-in fade-away mechanis, so that they can never stop to work though objectively possible after the basic needs have been met. It’s like having a job where one gets money only when beating one’s own record from yesterday … and that’s surely not happiness. Let’s envy the animals, which don’t have this treadmill thing and are happy without working for something beyond their basic needs. Where’s the way out?

Jesus about the hedonic treadmill

Me thinks that Jesus talks about the treadmill thing here:

“(24) ‘No man can work for two masters. He will hate one and love the other. Or he will obey one and despise the other. You cannot work for both God and money. (25) ‘So, I tell you this. Do not be troubled about what you will eat or drink to keep alive. Do not be troubled about what you will wear on your body. Life itself is worth more than food, and the body is worth more than clothes. (26) ‘Look at the birds that fly in the air. They do not plant or cut or keep any food. Yet your Father in heaven feeds them. Are you not worth more than birds? (27) Can any one of you live any longer by troubling yourself about these things? (28) And why are you troubled about clothes? See how the flowers grow in the fields. They do not work or make cloth. (29) I tell you, King Solomon was a great man. But he was not dressed as fine as one of these flowers. (30) God dresses the grass in the fields so it looks nice. It is in the field one day and the next day it is put on the fire. If God dresses the grass like that, he cares much more that you have clothes to wear. You do not believe in God very much! (31) ‘So then, do not keep asking, “What shall we eat?” “What shall we drink?” and “What shall we wear?” (32) It is the people who do not believe in God who work for all these things. Your Father in heaven knows that you need them all. (33) ‘Work first for God’s kingdom and what he calls good. Then you will have all these things also. (34) ‘So do not be troubling yourself about tomorrow. Tomorrow will have its own trouble. Today’s trouble is enough for today.’” [Matthew 24:24-34 BWE]

As an experiment, I interpret Jesus’ words here as pragmatical verbalization, i.e. immediately do-able. Then, I suppose the theoretical background is this: Jesus does not promise riches to those who “work first for the kingdom of God”. He talks about not searching our happiness in material things like luxurious meals and fine clothing, as this results in the unnecessary activity produced by the hedonic treadmill after the basic needs are met. Working for the basic needs is oll korrect, but serving materialism like a slave on a (hedonic) treadmill is not [Matthew 24:24 BWE]. Me thinks, Jesus even teaches that fulfillment of the basic needs is possible without conscious effort, i.e. we won’t realize this as a fatigue [Matthew 24:26,28,30 BWE]. Why do you reduce life to material stuff by caring for material stuff all your life? Realize that life is more than food (or other material stuff), as Jesus said [Matthew 24:25 BWE].

But staying away from the hedonic treadmill does not provide what you searched on it. So where to find permanent happiness? Let’s look closer at the following verse: “Work first for God’s kingdom and what he calls good. Then you will have all these things also.” [Matthew 24:33 BWE]. I think that this means primarily: “[…] then you will have happiness in the material world also, the very thing you searched when serving money, the very thing you searched on the hedonic treadmill”. In my view, it cannot mean that God will add all the clothes and riches of Solomon as immediate gifts, as e.g. Paul did not experience this (we will look at this below). But the need for happiness is fulfilled, and that is the thing searched for. And how or when is this need fulfilled? When one is “first […] concerned about God’s kingdom and his righteousness” [Matthew 24:33 ISV]. This is exactly what (who …) we need for our materially unfulfilled need: God. A relationship to God, where one experiences God’s love for humans and expresses love for God by a straight life according to his will. And how exactly does a relationship with God make us permanently happy? Lets o further …

The autarky escape

I stumbled over Paul’s approach to happy practical living, which is quite interesting. He seems to have internalized what Jesus said about sorrows (see above). Let’s read what he writes:

“(10) The Lord made me very happy to know that you were thinking about me again. Yes, I know you were thinking of me before, but you had no way to help me. (11) I do not mean that I needed it. I have learned to be satisfied with what I have. I am happy with whatever happens to me. (12) I know how to live when I am poor, and I know how to live when I am rich. No matter how things are, I have learned how to live: when I have plenty of food, or when I am hungry; when I have more things than I need, and when I do not have enough. (13) I can do all things because Christ gives me strength.” [Philippians 4:10-13 BWE]

You might want to read the wider context: Philippians 4:10-19 BWE. (And if you clicked the references and arrived at verse 9: these references are correct but the verse scheme at is shifted by mistake.) In Greek, Paul states that he learned to be satisfied whith what he has like this:

“ουχ οτι καθ υστερησιν λεγω εγω γαρ εμαθον εν οις ειμι αυταρκης ειναι” [Philippians 4:11 TR]

A word-by-word translation would be like “Not that with respect to want I say this; because I learned, in whatsoever I am, to be content.”. The word translated “content” is “αυταρκης” (transliterates “autarkes”). It comes from “αυτος” (autos), meaning “self”, and “αρκεω” (arkeo), meaning “to be sufficient”, “to be enough”, or literally “to ward off”. So together it means “self-sufficient”, and indeed this is where the word “autarky” comes from.

Perhaps Paul would accept the following variations to describe his condition:

  • I am self-sufficient, which means that my happiness depends on what is in myself rather than on what comes to myself from the outer circumstances. And in myself is Christ with his strength, resp. my relationship to him which does not depend on material circumstances.
  • I have learned that the material world with all its lack and abundance will vanish, but I know and experienced what is eternal: God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and my company with them. See also what I wrote in I Corinthians 7:29-31 BWE.
  • I have learned how to deal with every situation. Which means, there was a time when I was not able to be happy instead of poverty and instead of richness, but I was trained to be.
  • I am content within every situation. This does not mean that I would be content if there’d be nothing at all and I’d be starving to death. Instead, God knows what I need, and supplies this for me. Some people will be surprised that God does not prevent me from bing poor at times, but I’m no longer surprised. Because what we call poverty also is a situation that has enough good things in it to be content with. I had to learn to see and use these goods and I did learn it.
  • God’s supply means I’ll never enter a situation where there objectively is less than I need (not: wish) to be content with.
  • The key is to basically think the present situation to be worth living (at least potentially or latently). With this premise, one will care about adapting, furnishing and customizing the situation, according to one’s abilities, and indeed arrive at something worth living. This is a situation of “conformance with one’s goals and wishes”, which is the very definition of happiness. If one instead wishes to escape the whole situation, one tries something beyond one’s abilities, which means that one’s practical life is no longer in conformance with one’s goals and wishes, which means unhappiness.

Paul that that he had to learn to be happy in all situations. Which means one has to know some things and get some training to do so. What, for example, does one have to learn to be content in poverty?

  • Create no plans how to escape from your present situation. You’d just see them fail (and get frustrated) because poverty means you have not the resources to escape.
  • Take good care to discover all the available resources and beneficient peculiarities of your situation, and use these with a creative mind to their fullest.
  • Wish just what you can achieve with the present resources, and think carefully about what can be achieved with the present resources. This is plenty of stuff, as “best things in life are free”.
  • Await a change of the situation from the outside, i.e. look out for open doors to walk through. That is, use very moderate force to search for open doors, but do not try with full force to break doors open. You wouldn’t succeed or would choose the wrong door, and you would get stressed and exhausted, anything far from being happy.


  • Important: Paul talks only about the missing correlation between his money and his happiness; in this context “I am happy with whatever happens to me.” (Phil 4:11 BWE) does not mean “really all” as this would consequently say that Paul would be happy in hell as well. So one should not blindly extrapolatethese words to friends and social needs as well.
  • Did Paul expect a change of his poor situation? Perhaps it was really really equal to him (Phil 4:10-11)?
  • Verbalize the insights here as the difference between top-down life (the idealistic approach that comes from (thinking about) the ideal) and bottom-up life (the pragmatic approach to the ideal).
  • Add examples how the “hedonic treadmill” idea is confirmed by life’s experiences (par. 5): “While private life is private, we might look at some publicly visible persons: […]”, then insert here 5-10 stories of tragic persons of public life who searched for money, love and might.

Date: 2007-08-14
Last meaningful change: 2007-08-19

Den Unterschied zwischen Massentierhaltung und Leben in freier Natur gibt es auch bei Menschen. Es ist der Unterschied zwischen einem Leben dessen Tätigkeiten vordefiniert und wertlos sind, und einem Leben das aufregend schön und nützlich ist und Alleinstellungsmerkmale hat (Leben als Kunstform). Begegnet man Menschen in Massenhaltung so frage man sich wie man sie befreien kann. Wie öde ist es doch zum Beispiel, vor einer katholischen Kirche in Manila Kerzen zu verkaufen. And perhaps God would say: Is this what I made you for? Es geht gar nicht einmal zuerst darum, die Zeit bis zum Tod »sinnvoll« zu nutzen und »Gutes« zu tun. Denn ohne Tod gäbe es keinen Mangel an Zeit und ohne das Böse keinen Mangel an Gutem. Es geht darum: Gottes Ebenbild zu sein statt durch das eigene Beispiel ein falsches Bild von Gott zu erwecken.

Auf Feiern und anderen geselligen Unternehmungen kann ich mich zur Zeit nicht so richtig freuen. Denn ich betrachte gerade mein Leben und überhaupt das Menschsein in Gedanken von außen und erlaubte mir, krasser darüber zu denken als vielleicht jemals zuvor. Ein paar Statements davon (… zum Weiterentwickeln):

  • Weg mit den religiösen Traditionen. Auf einer Feier wie ich Feiern kenne wird Gott organisiert: »Lasst uns das Lied Nummer zweihundertachtundsiebzig singen.«. Noch ein Lied, eine Andacht, das war es. So etwas halte ich für bloß erlernte Religiösität … die genauso oberflächlich ist wie der Rest eines solchen Lebensstils: really small talk, blöde Witze über die man trotzdem lacht, Wertschätzung des Teuren (Autos können TEUER sein …) und soziale Beziehungen die nur ein Austausch normenkonformen Verhaltens sind, ohne jeden Tiefgang.
  • Die Probleme lösen oder sich daran vorbeifreuen? Auf geselligen Unternehmungen (auch von Gemeinden): wir spielten Volleyball, aßen und tranken, machten Witze und lachten, und wir nennen das »Gemeinschaft«. Und ich denke gleichzeitig über das Lachen: »Du bist ja verrückt, was schaffst du schon.« (vgl. Pred.2,2). Ich finde es feige, sich zu freuen während man weder das Leben verstanden hat noch einen Ansatz kennt wie man seine Probleme beantworten kann. Anders ausgedrückt: ich kann nicht verstehen wie man so im Konkreten leben kann; denn ich finde das Konkrete unwichtig. Ich kann nicht verstehen wie man sich anstrengen kann ein Spiel wie Volleyball zu gewinnen (es ist ein Spiel!), einen guten Salat zu machen (anderes ernährt auch!), zu grillen (was’n Aufwand!), Kanu zu fahren (häh?), small talk zu halten (was ‘ne Ressourcenverschwendung, wie vermeidbar!), andere nach ihrem Wohlergehen zu fragen wenn man daran sowieso nichts ändern kann (wie ziellos!), eine Feier zu machen (nur für wertlosen small talk? pfui!). Diese Art zu denken halte ich gar nicht mehr für so ungeistlich und schädlich wie bisher: »Denn das Reich Gottes ist nicht Essen und Trinken, sondern Gerechtigkeit und Friede und Freude im Heiligen Geiste. Denn wer in diesem dem Christus dient, ist Gott wohlgefällig und den Menschen bewährt.« (Röm.14,17-18). Small talk zu hassen ist typisch für Nerds [Wikipedia], und Nerds sind auch Menschen die Gott gemacht hat und für die es also einen freudvollen Lebensstil gibt. Was mich z.B. freut sind tiefe Gespräche, die weiter helfen.
  • Die Probleme der Welt am Beispiel Gemeinde. Dass wir tatsächlich das Leben nicht verstanden haben zeigt sich schon an Gemeinde: bis jetzt habe ich noch keine Gemeinde kennengelernt die nicht an der Mittelmäßigkeit des Menschseins verzweifelt. Statt dass Gemeinden voll Kraft sind ist alles kraftlos und kompliziert. Was _ist_ eigentlich Gemeinde? Im Moment ist es das effektlose Treffen von Menschen die Gott grundlos für gerecht erklärt hat. Ich glaube dass es ein Fehler ist das Gemeindeleben so an das deutsche zivilisierte Leben anzupassen; es scheint nicht anders zu gehen weil eigentlich niemand aus den Zwängen des zivilisierten Lebens herauskann. (Meine Sehnsucht ist, da gemeinsam auszubrechen: power community).