Johnny, when boarding the plane, is notified that this is the first flight ever with a Wi-Fi connection. How exciting! Several hours later, accompanied by turbulence, the captain’s voice blares over the intercom, “We apologize that because of the turbulence, the wi-fi will not be working for the rest of the flight.” Johnny, upon exiting the flight, leaves a nasty review of the airline. After all, the wi-fi did not work.
There’s something profoundly amusing about how quickly one’s expectations change when being brought into a better situation, and how fast one notices when an advantage is taken away. The hedonic treadmill is the observation that humans return to a “normal” degree of happiness in the long term.
Every single person is Johnny. Having a poor understanding of cognitive biases alongside a lack of gratitude leads humanity to fail to understand and appreciate our blessings in day-to-day life. This understanding is especially important politically, when thinking about absolute harm to lives, which may lead us to become sentimental about situations that are unfortunate.
Gallup Polls in 2011 interviewed 148 countries around the world to determine the relative happiness of each country. Surprisingly, among the happiest people on Earth were some of the poorest. Countries like the United States and Germany were not the top contenders despite their absolute wealth. This begs questions such as, if wealth fails to create happiness, is accumulation of it still worthwhile?
Yes, wealth allows us to eat healthier than before, to have access to better medicine for ourselves and our loved ones, and gives us a wider range of choice in our activities. Neglecting or forgoing wealth will lead us to unnecessary misery.
Yet, the notion of Maslow’s pyramid may explain why poor countries may be more satisfied. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a theory proposed by Abraham Maslow which argues that people are motivated by five basic categories of need that become increasingly hard to attain. Physiological needs are most primary followed by safety, love, esteem and finally, self-actualization.
The rise of capitalism in less wealthy countries has more recently allowed physiological needs and safety needs to be filled more rapidly than before, pushing the expected happiness up. The same trend does not hold as well in wealthier countries. The difference between straw floors versus wood is more appreciable and less expensive than the innovations in wealthier countries. The momentum of poverty alleviation does not have the same effect on wealthy countries. Since basic needs have already been met, attempting to achieve psychological needs and self-actualization become increasingly hard to do, as they become increasingly abstract.
While it may be true that the hedonic treadmill seems to spin faster as one gets more, research suggests that it is possible to outrun it. Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues Cohn, Coffey, Pek, and Finkel’s research showed that loving-kindness meditation can outplace the hedonic treadmill. Additionally, Harvard professor Tal Ben-Shahar, a specialist in the field of psychology explains more broadly how one can change the median level of happiness one experiences by accepting your emotions, simplifying your life, enjoying what you do, focusing on the positive, increasing your effort in relationships, exercising often and practicing mindfulness and yoga.
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Isadore Johnson is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.