I was in my last year of university when The Wolf Of Wall Street came out and I saw Leonardo DiCaprio scream to his sales teams “there is no nobility in poverty. I have been a rich man and I have been poor man and I choose rich every fucking time!”
DiCaprio is my favourite actor and sometimes I forgot I wasn’t watching him. I was watching a character who lied, cheated and stole his way to ill-gotten money and justified his actions however he could.
I knew the Jordan Belfort of the film was an unsavoury asshole. But a part of me was still captivated by what he was saying and what he was selling. The idea that things make us happy: money, wealth, big houses, fast cars.
For a while, it’s what I believed too and I defined myself by where I was at in relation to how much money I was earning, my job status. I chained myself to the belief that I needed to buy a house by the time I was ‘x’ years old. Then I’d be happy.
But all it really came down to was running in place. I was in danger of wanting more and more and that was damaging to my mental health because the constructs of wealth, status and property weren’t coming to me and I felt bad because I wasn’t achieving them.
I was stuck on the hedonic treadmill and it was during the height of the pandemic that I finally chose to step off. I’ve traded up for the eudaimonic treadmill.
This essay is about exploring the differences between these two types of thought patterns.
What is the hedonic treadmill?
Also known as hedonic adaptation, the hedonic treadmill is a concept that observes how people tend to return to the same levels of happiness despite positive and negative events.
A couple of examples of this theory in action are:
- A person can win the lottery and in the first year they experience euphoria and go on a massive spending spree. But once the novelty has worn off, that person returns to a normal level of happiness or may even look to recapture that initial feeling.
- Someone could be in a devastating accident and lose the ability to walk. But after a habituation period, they may return to a certain level of happiness once they have come to accept their situation.
So, the theory is called the hedonic treadmill because we often return to the same place from where we started.
Hedonic adaptation can be split between pleasures and gratifications, which is well explained in an article from Very Well Mind:
“Knowing that pleasures are fleeting in their effects may make them seem less worth the effort than other activities like gratifications that can bring more lasting results. There are reasons why they can be perfect for certain situations.
First, as mentioned earlier, they bring a quick lift in mood without a great deal of effort. This mood boost is actually quite valuable because there is significant research that shows that a lift in mood can lead to a chain reaction of positive feelings and increased resilience.
Basically, pleasures can create an “upward spiral of positivity,” and this can lead to greater happiness and resilience to stress. For the little effort they require, this is a pretty big payoff.
Second, gratifications do take more effort, so when you only have a few minutes or a very limited amount of energy, pleasures are often the simpler and more accessible option. For example, if you’re running errands and feeling stressed, it’s often easier to drink some nice tea as you rush (which can be pleasant and diminish stress) than getting out some painting supplies and honing your craft.”
The distinction is that pleasures provide short term bursts of happiness. They are quick and easy to indulge in. Gratifications e.g. hobbies may take more energy but can lead to a more rewarding state of mind, providing there is a tempered approach.
Hedonic adaptation is a part of life, but it’s from a place of moderation and self-awareness that the eudaimonic treadmill comes in.
Hedonic happiness vs eudaimonic happiness
The origins of hedonic happiness goes back to Ancient Greece with a philosopher called Aristippus. His philosophy was that pleasure should be the ultimate goal of life and I should stress that Aristippus’ viewpoint was different to the modern interpretation of hedonism.
Aristippus advocated for an ethical kind of hedonism, meaning he didn’t go out of his way to harm others in the pursuit of pleasure. He also liked to live luxuriously and enjoyed a lot of sex.
Modern culture tends to identify hedonism with excess. Therefore, people who live a hedonistic lifestyle may associate luxury and physical wealth with the path to true happiness.
Eudaimonia is a Greek word that has been translated to ‘flourishing’ and this state of happiness comes from finding meaning and purpose in life.
In an interview I did with Stoic philosopher Brittany Polat, she described eudaimonia as:
“This was the ancient Greek term for deep, rich flourishing — living your best life, we might say today. It definitely does not correspond to the 21st century understanding of happiness, which usually means a fleeting emotion based on receiving external goods.
Eudaimonia is a stable condition that results from the development of wisdom. I love A.A. Long’s definition (from Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life):
“Philosophical eudaimonia is a condition in which a person of excellent character is living optimally well, flourishing, doing admirably, and steadily enjoying the best mindset that is available to human beings. It’s a condition that’s worth working your whole life to achieve.”
The ancient Stoics were firm believers in achieving eudaimonic happiness. Philosophers like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca spoke often of finding purpose through living in accordance with what you believe and not being attached to external goods like wealth and property.
Getting on the eudaimonic treadmill
If you like the sound of hopping onto the eudaimonic treadmill, here are some observations I’ve found useful in my own life:
Look to your inner resources
I believe everyone has the ability to find happiness within themselves. You may have an inner world in which you like to retreat to or it could simply come from instinct.
Your inner resources are kindness, compassion, determination, care for yourself and others. What’s important is finding ways to use them in situations that make sense to you.
I’ve struggled on and off with social anxiety and sometimes I’ve felt exposed and vulnerable in a big crowd. I’ve felt paralysed.
What has helped is using my inner resources to speak to people in smaller groups. To people I feel comfortable with and then it’s got easier to open up to others. And if not? Well, I can remove myself from the situation if needed.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money or enjoying fine experiences. Many of the Stoics were rich and influential members of society.
Seneca wrote extensively about being enslaved to wealth while also being one of the richest men in Rome.
When criticised by others for being a hypocrite he said, “if my wealth flows away it will only take itself. If you lose your wealth, you will be in shock and you’ll feel as though you’ve lost your very self. For me, wealth has a place, but for you it holds the highest value. In the end, I own my wealth, but your wealth owns you.”
There lies the difference between being on a hedonic and eudaimonic treadmill. It’s not defining your identity by how much money you have and exercising moderation. If you start pursuing money for the sake of making more money and it becomes all you think about then it can lead to a downward spiral.
You could practice self-restraint by being clear on what is enough for you in terms of money. You could use your physical wealth as a tool for bettering yourself, the community and the world.
Don’t outsource your happiness
“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people but care more about their opinions than our own.” — Marcus Aurelius
It’s part of the human condition to want to be accepted by others. To feel like we belong.
But how much time and money are you spending on trying to be accepted? Does it bring a sense of purpose or deep joy when you buy something or speak to someone? Are you in a career because it gives you meaning or is it because you want to be perceived in a certain way?
These questions all come back to the notion of outsourced happiness. You have the power to decide what makes you happy. You have the ability to find peace in the present moment.
I still think about DiCaprio’s speech in The Wolf Of Wall Street. That there’s no nobility in poverty and that to be a rich man is better than being a poor man. I agree.
There’s nobility in being rich of spirit and character. In being aware of your own mental health and those around you. A rich man recognises his flaws. Owns up to his mistakes and tries to do better. He tries to uplift everyone in the pursuit of being better.
A poor man doesn’t know the value of himself or others. He chases after shiny objects, burning bridges and sacrificing relationships. And when he’s attained those things, he’s still not satisfied and moves on to the next desire or impulse, having learned nothing from the experience.
I know which one I’d rather be.