Are you on the hedonic treadmill? A cautioning tale of lifestyle inflation

Do you remember your student days? I sure do remember mine! Living of a rather small salary from part time jobs I was happy and content sleeping on a mattress on the floor in my small room of the apartment I shared with two friends. All my belongings fit into 2 large boxes and things were generally good. How much did I spend per month? Probably SGD 800 including rent.
A few years later at the age of 29 things had changed…

I moved into a condo, bought a lot of useless things over the years, then hired a cleaning lady to help with cleaning, signed up at a gym next to the office to combat the weight gain that came with business dinners and heavy socializing and so on.

Every salary increase brought new expenses as I thought I could afford added luxuries now. After all I was working hard and needed to treat myself from time to time. Right? Three years later, now at 32 I know: this is all bullshit. Before knowing it I too had gone on the hedonic treadmill.

So what is the hedonic treadmill?

Wikipedia has summarized this phenomenon beautifully: “as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.”

As your salary increases you fill your life with more and more stuff and expenses, which in turn cost money. A hundred dollar/month gym membership turns into a SGD 1,200 yearly bill and before you know it you spend SGD 2,400 per year on having your house cleaned for you. Like a hamster in a wheel you then have to work more and more to support the new lifestyle you have chosen. The worst bit: you are in many cases not happier than before. Maybe even a bit more stressed out?


Running, running but getting nowhere. Such is life on a treadmill (picture by Farhad)

Before knowing it I had transformed from my happy student life into mindlessly consuming and spending money on things that did not make me much happier. Sometimes I would spend more money in two evenings than I had as a monthly budget when I was still a student. Obviously I had become a victim of the hedonic treadmill.

What can you do to avoid the hedonic treadmill?

  1. Be conscious of your lifestyle inflation: create a list of major things or running costs you have created for yourself during your career (car, memberships, spa packages etc.)
  2. Avoid creating running costs for yourself that you do not really need. The SGD 100/month True Fitness membership is nice, but Gymboxx only charges SGD 4 per entry and jogging or bodyweight routines are free
  3. Get back to basic forms of happiness: are you happier in fancy bars with your colleagues than you were in the times you had drinks with your friends on your couch? Is pan-fried foie gras really making you happier than grilled satays? Is the SGD 6 dollar cappuccino downstairs really so much better than the free coffee in the office?
  4. Buy less stuff you do not really need. Would this item really make you happier in the long run? If someone would let you choose between the value of the item in cash, would you still take the item and not the cash?
  5. Avoid the feeling of having to keep up with people. All your co-workers at your level bought cars and tell  you that in Singapore you have to have a car? Don’t buy one. All your ladyfriends believe manicure-pedicure’s twice a week are a needed indulgence? Ignore them. Do you need the branded handbags that everyone has? Obviously not.

What do you feel? Did you get on the hedonistic treadmill yourself? Feel free to post in the comments if you have any ideas for a cure!

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