Happiness is Zeno’s hedonic treadmill

I don’t take Maslow’s Hiearchy of Needs very seriously. I don’t much worry about hedonic treadmills. I don’t worry about a cursed existence where I am forever advancing half-way closer to whatever goal will bring happiness and emotional fulfillment.

I don’t worry about it, but I understand.

I’m struggling to find much inspiration sketching my little ad hoc economic models of daily life with the backdrop of Ukrainians struggling to survive in the face of an invading army. Perspective is a hell of a drug. This struggle has brought to the front of my mind Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, which lays a psychological layering onto the economic prioritization of needs (food and shelter first, social needs second, “self-actualization” last). It’s the kind of model that gets used and abused because it adds a veneer of psychological depth to absurd reductionist theorizing. Don’t take my petty academic denigration too seriously, though. Just because I think it’s not particularly useful doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Similarly, I find consternation over hedonic treadmills unnecessary because whenever your result is that utility is declining as resource constraints are loosening, the likely explanation is that you aren’t observing utility correctly. Specifically, there are dimensions to utility you aren’t observing, be it temporal (i.e. the distribution of future possibe utilities), network (i.e. sympathetic utilities of children, spouses, friends, etc), or most likely that you are in fact not observing utility but rather one of many inputs into total utility i.e. there’s more to utility than just “happiness”.

But maybe you’re not interested in how to optimally model the pursuit of happiness under the dual constraints of finite resources and the human condition. Maybe you’re just worried about managing your life under the limitations of your own flawed humanity. Maybe you’re worried about getting stuck on a hedonic treadmill, the carrot of self-actualization dangling forever just out of reach. Now I’m not a licensed therapist or trained psychologist, but I am an economist who has to constantly struggle against my own technical limitations. What that means is that I have a lot of experience solving problems beyond my own mathematical limitations, not through technical elegance but by simply hacking the problem until the problem solves itself.

You know. Cheating.

If you’re on a hedonic treadmill, all that really means is that you’ve defined your units wrong. It’s only a treadmill measured in feet. If you define happiness not as feet advanced but as having a positive first derivative in microns per microsecond, you can establish the model such that you’ll be long dead before you reach the dipping edge on the horizon. Happiness isn’t a destination or a journey. It’s a positive first derivative or, barring that, a sufficiently positive second deriviative. If that’s out of reach, f*** it, there’s a third one you can push into the positive.

Framed this way, Zeno’s paradox is no longer a curse, it’s a blessing. To always be advancing half-way to your goal for all eternity is to live in eternal bliss. To self-actualize. Whether you get there is outside the model. It’s irrelevant.

Which is a really long way of saying that one way you might hack the puzzle of self-actualization is to help support the physiological and safety needs of Ukrainians be transferring some of your resources to them as means of supporting the first-derivative of sympathetic inputs into your utility function.

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