Attachment and the hedonic treadmill

Attachment and the hedonic treadmill

By Jimmy Petruzzi


Suffering as discontent is associated with the tendency to cling to and crave anything that is perceived as desirable and beneficial. Not only do we view the essence of the wanted object or experience as having constant and permanent value, but, like and addiction, as soon as we acquire or achieve it, it’s suddenly not as satisfactorily as imagined or we become aware of something else that is more appealing.


According to evolutionary psychology, this process was developed over time to ensure our survival by ensuring and motivating particular behavior. The entire dynamic mostly takes place outside of the awareness as we attempt to anchor and position ourselves to achieve what we have always been made to believe is important—self-protection, attracting and retaining a mate, protecting kinship, establishing status and affiliations, and avoiding diseases. These motivators are also known as the seven modular mind domains, which drive our primary and mostly subconscious mental processes. These drives may have ensured our survival and procreation a long time ago, but modern demands are very different, and it creates an unsatisfactory ambivalence.


As a result, we have a distorted perception of entitlement, which produces unrealistic expectations. It then becomes a vain pursuit to attach to things, ideas, and opinions to sustain our own mistaken view of the self. In reality, there is no such self-and-other distinction, and our pursuits are nothing but a hedonic treadmill, a term used to describe the supposed tendency of humans to achieve no permanent reward of happiness as gains, expectations and desires rise and fall in tandem, always leaving the individual feeling disappointed and unsatisfied. Long-term happiness, or preventing pain, is not significantly affected by attachments or avoidant behavior. Such approach and withdrawal behaviors can be seen as the root of suffering, which often lack meaning and logic, and are protective reflexes from an evolutionary perspective.


In simpler terms, in desperately clinging to our views and perceived value of the self, chasing after needs and avoiding unpleasant experiences, we are trapped in a cycle without meaning and insight.




We tend to view ourselves as separate from others and objects and states that we desire. We often conceptualize our identity based on what we think we have achieved and are entitled to, but it is only an illusion that does not reflect reality. We believe that a separate self exists that retains identity over time, is permanent and enduring, and has controlling powers. However, according to Buddhist teachings, the conception of the self is based on retrospective analyses that have no intrinsic existence. Instead, the self is really impermanent and insubstantial. The self is constructed in response to external factors and experiences, which continually change. So, the self can actually be seen as a “stream of oneself” instead of a finite entity.


What we experience, rather, is a continuous flow of perceptions that replace one another in rapid succession. Therefore, our notion of the self is continually shaped by successive perceptions and interpretations of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and other mental experiences. Our conscious effort is to rationalize and attach some meaning to these inner experiences, using objective interpretations that are far from factual and complete.


As such, our identity is the sum of our memories, which is, therefore, fluid, contextual, and sometimes confabulated. We seem to struggle to accept our interdependence and utilize group interaction to support the self-illusion to serve our own perceived interests. In other words, everything arises in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions; nothing exists as a singular, independent entity, including the self.


Cognitive theory has also taught us that from feeling arises craving, which results in grasping and, ultimately, behavior. Therefore, feeling is the outcome of contact between senses and objects. The fact that we base our entire beings on an elusive sense of self can have far-reaching consequences if it is out of touch with reality.