Getting off the hedonic treadmill–words of wisdom from Terence Mckenna

AT EVERY TURN, there seems some incentive drawing me into dissatisfaction from things I want but cannot have. I know, if I give in, dissatisfaction will turn to voraciousness, then to self-destruction. And I lament that very few significant people in my life haven’t set their life’s purpose toward gaining the most material wealth. None seem to have gained any significant measure of strength, character growth or happiness, but, actually, this pursuit, over the years, appears to have worn them down. So many have been consumed by their consumption, irrevocably changed to my despair and loathing.

In The New Human Rights Movement, Peter Joseph calls this pursuit the hedonic treadmill. In his words, it’s “the tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals. Accordingly, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. This tendency can also relate to dissatisfaction, in that people seeking further material gain cannot increase happiness.” 1
The problem, Joseph points out, is that “social connection and self-worth has been partly relegated to relative material success.” 2
In other words, the social connection and self-esteem we need and can only get from others has been confused with superficial material goods and positions of prestige, but none of these superficial desires can replace real human connection. This inevitably leads to dissatisfaction, emptiness, greed, loneliness, and a slew of apparent aberrant behaviors. From a macro perspective, one could make the argument that this hedonic confusion is responsible for the rampant ecological destruction of the planet. 3


Nevertheless, this observation is most definitely adversarial against consumerist culture, and I welcome all reactionary responses. But, at the same time, I don’t think people should be blamed for their voracious consumerism. I don’t see people acting in bad faith but rather people caught in a tragic situation, where they desperately and stubbornly work themselves to death–pining in vain for validation and connection–a situation that ultimately alienates others, also in need of connection.
For all the reasons that explain why so many of us are on the hedonic treadmill–i.e. behavioral psychology’s involvement in the advertising industry–there remains the experience itself of people caught in the grips of a chronic consumerist frenzy.

America is obsessed with the notion of Success. Success is vague and mailable to whatever end. The definition of Success is relative to whatever aesthetic floats in any one person’s mind, at any given time and place in history. Success is the ever-aloft, penultimate goal that’s never realized. On the hedonic treadmill, it’s this notion that keeps people going, as they fixate on the Successful Life. Life itself is hijacked when all experience becomes a chore list, just another means to an end.
Antithetical to the situation of being on the hedonic treadmill is one of living in the moment. Some call this mindfulness. A useful phrase that makes the point, however, is ethnobotanist/psychonaut/philosopher Terence Mckenna’s “felt presence of immediate experience,” which, for him is the only reality anyone will ever know or possess. The quote below is from one of his renowned speaking tours.

“The one thing that seems secure is a truth that is hard to hear in the context of a dominator culture with an obsession with the material world, and that truth is that nothing lasts. Nothing lasts. You know, your enemies will fade, your friends will fade, your fortune, your poverty, your disappointments, your dreams–everything is in the process of changing into something else, so your agony is about to be assuaged. On the other hand, your happiness is about to be destroyed. So, the obligation that comes out of this realization is an obligation to the immediate moment–to this thing that I’ve been calling the felt moment of immediate experience. It isn’t who you were, or what you were, or who you will be, or what you will be. It’s the felt moment of immediate experience. This has been robbed from us by media and by our tendency to denigrate ourselves to see the world in terms of the great ones, not here, whoever they are: Aristotle, Madonna, Jesus, whatever your particular bent is. The overcoming of neurosis, of unhappiness, of toxic lifestyles is the felt presence of immediate experience–in the body, in the moment, and, you know, psychedelics, sexuality, gastronomy, sport, dance–these are the things that put you in the felt presence of the moment. And that’s all you really ever possess. Your memories are eroding away. The futures you anticipate will mostly not come to pass. The real richness is in the moment, and it’s not necessarily some kind of be here now, feel-good thing because it doesn’t always feel good, but it always feels. It is a domain of feeling. It’s primary. Language is not primary; ideology is not primary; the propagation of future and past vectors is not primary; what’s primary is the felt presence of experience, and that is the source of love, and that is the source of community.” 4

Photos by Bruce Graves


  1. New Human Rights Movement, The: Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression – page 351-52 – Peter Joseph – BenBella Books – 2017
  2. New Human Rights Movement, The: Reinventing the Economy to End Oppression – page 25 – Peter Joseph – BenBella Books – 2017
  3. 2018 article, “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice,” from BioScience
  4. Psychedelic Salon, #391, “Nothing Lasts,” by Terence McKenna

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.