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Getting Off the Hedonic Treadmill

ChristmasThe chaos in the weeks leading up to Christmas never ceases to amaze me. Step into any mall, grocery or retail store in those last days and it's absolute bedlam: people running around in a panic trying to find something - anything - for those last few recipients on their gift lists. What should be thoughtful purchases for loved ones and friends become just another "to-do" on an already long-list of tasks in a stressful season.

As Brian Kramer writes in the winter edition of  Bargain Style, "...the months of November and December have become a 60-day obstacle course. Like a reality-show contestant subjected to ridiculous physical chalenges, I must run a gauntlet of parties and dinners, deadlines and obligations. Armed only with debit and credit cards, I charge my way to the finish line."

Similarly, Jan Masters notes in the December issue of Red Magazine, "extravagant present-buying has become (literally) part and parcel of the festival...to buy is to care, which is why so many of us feel panicky until we've splurged."

When did it get like this? When did the time and energy spent buying overshadow the duration and quality of time spent with the gift recipients themselves?

Masters keenly notes that modern shopping has become therapy for some. Buying things for yourself or others can provide a sense of control, empowerment, and happiness - if only for a fleeting moment. And therein lies the problem: we acquire and/or gift things in order to feel status, happiness or love; inevitably these "things" lose their luster; and we run off to replace them with new things. It becomes an endless cycle, which psychologists refer to as the "hedonic treadmill" - or the notion that money can buy happiness.

Masters also highlights recent study findings by Psychologist Dr. Aric Sigman who believes that "this relentless urge to buy is, in part, born of our insecurities, which drive a desire to create identities through possessions." We've all been there...filling up our homes and our lives with more products than we truly need, but ones that make us feel good at a certain point in time.

So how do you get off this treadmill? Peter Whybrow, author of American Mania: When More is not Enough, states that "we need to strike a balance between seeking personal reward and maintaining meaningful relationships, and to realize that it's belonging, not belongings, that make the difference."

Kramer suggests that the trick is to act like a kid again - kids don't "lie awake in bed and fret about whether (they) purchased the right brand of blender, spent enough on a Secret Santa present, or could count four small items as the gift-giving equivalent of one supersized present." Kids don't worry about whether a gift is expensive or special enough - they rely on creativity and sincerity.

Incidentally, research indicates that physical health is the best single predictor of happiness, so maybe it's time to trade in that hedonic treadmill for another kind.

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