As college students, we all know what it’s like to be pushed and challenged to reach our next goal in life. First it was getting good grades throughout high school, then it was scoring well on standardized exams, after that it was applying to colleges. Now, it’s working hard at university— whether it’s increasing your GPA or building your resume. For our entire academic lives, we’ve been constantly working towards something.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s great to have this sort of driven, goal-oriented mindset— this is how we ended up at college in the first place.
But the extent to which we adopt a mentality focused on achievement plays a large role in the sorts of lives we lead and can have drastically negative effects. We are susceptible to getting stuck on the hedonic treadmill.
In psychology, the concept of the hedonic treadmill illustrates the propensity of humans to return to a relatively normal level of happiness, regardless of external changes in their life circumstances. We might spend years selling our soul to the corporate world in return for that Tesla, at which point we’ll really be happy— at least that’s what we tell ourselves. We might spend months stressing over a job promotion that surely will solve our problems once we obtain it. But no matter what goals we set out and eventually achieve, the overall happiness it adds to our lives tends to be less than we originally expect it to be. We realize that the wealth or status we attain doesn’t really make our lives that much better after all, so we move on to the next thing we think will make us happy.
It’s unfortunately very easy to be consumed by this goal-oriented mindset during college.
I’ve gone for several runs on the hedonic treadmill, which always leave me exhausted when I finally get off. At the beginning of each quarter, my focus is on learning for the sake of learning because I know my grade isn’t the end all be all. I feel grateful for my education and excited about learning new things. This is the reason we attend college in the first place— to expand our intellectual horizons and gain new skills and perspectives.
As each quarter progresses, however, I find myself more and more worried about my final grade and my GPA. The grade becomes the end and the learning just the means to that end, whereas before the end was simply learning itself. Learning is reduced to mere tasks, where I become focused solely on getting things done for the sake of getting them done. Assignments I would be excited about at the beginning of the quarter become barriers standing in between me and my grade.
That A on my transcript dangles in front of me like a prize I’m sprinting to catch.
I catch myself falling into this habit more often than my ego would like to admit. The desire to excel academically leads me astray from my original motivation for doing things. Although I’m a driven student who pushes myself to work hard, I’ve not inherently trained myself to feel like a failure if I don’t have perfect grades. Nor do my parents put any extreme pressure on me to have a certain GPA or academic record. The pressure I feel to succeed in my classes stems from something else, something external.
I feel this pressure stems from a society that prizes progress and innovation. Those deemed as ‘successful’ live exceedingly luxurious lives, demonstrating a very particular image and status. You know the stereotype— the disgustingly rich businessman who exists eternally in a pressed suit and drives a Bugatti. We worship them for being so disciplined, superior to others because they don’t let themselves get distracted from reaching their goals. They too, though, might be stuck on the hedonic treadmill— concerned solely with the next project to undertake and result to produce.
Unfortunately, we’re conditioned from an early age to idolize this sort of lifestyle we must adopt in order to reach the same level of success and consequent worth.
When we get to college, we’re thrown into this state of preparation— readying ourselves to become ‘adults’ in the ‘real world.’ This leads us to forget about the reason we do things in the first place— the things that truly matter become just the means to the end of success. Instead of being present, subconscious thoughts about how well we’re doing in reaching our goals distract us from enjoying things for what they are.
One specific philosophy series I took demonstrates this phenomenon perfectly. I’ve never been into the historical side of philosophy, but I went into the series open-minded, ready to absorb all the knowledge my recently declared major had to offer. But as each course progressed and I found myself tied up with other classes, I stopped caring as much about the content I was learning in the series. By the end of each quarter of these courses, I was doing the bare minimum amount of work just to ensure that I’d receive an A.
I did work for other classes during the lecture, and merely skimmed or simply didn’t even open the readings. I stopped learning. As long as I get an A, it’s all good, I thought to myself. Unfortunately, I think this is a reality a lot of us have lived at one point or another.
We get stuck on the hedonic treadmill, our appetite for success and achievement never satiated.
I did receive a good grade in the series, but I regret the way I earned it. At the time, it was just another A to add to my transcript. I wasn’t mentally present in it at all, and I consequently gained pretty much no new knowledge. This outcome is one beginning-of-the-quarter me would be very disappointed with.
A concept from the philosophy of Stoicism has provided me a way to combat getting stuck on the hedonic treadmill— the dichotomy of control. We can practice distinguishing between things that are within our control like our personal values, our happiness, our self-esteem, etc. and those that are not within our control like the opinions of others, our material wealth, and especially some of the things we ‘achieve’ in life. Doing so allows us to dedicate more time and energy to our internal goals, placing less of our happiness on the outcome of things we don’t have the power to change. As a result, we won’t be so obsessed with the next thing and can find happiness regardless of the external events of our lives.
Another lesson I’ve learned from the miles I’ve accumulated on the hedonic treadmill is to practice mindfulness and appreciate all that I have.
In college, this translates to being mentally present in my classes and grateful for the opportunity to learn. Shifting my focus in this way helps me keep learning for the sake of learning as my priority (as opposed to the grade). I’ve found that the good grade simply just follows from this mindset.
The most difficult class I’ve taken at UCLA was a course on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason taught by Kant scholar and American philosopher Tyler Burge. I was extremely nervous at the beginning of the quarter and even considered dropping the class, but decided to stick it out and commit to worrying only about whether or not I understood the material. After 11 weeks of the densest content I’ve ever been faced with, I received my final grade of an A. The class is my favorite and most memorable I’ve ever taken because I have something to be genuinely proud of: the fact that I didn’t let myself get consumed by the desire for a good grade. I worked hard, kept my priorities straight, and most importantly learned.
Working towards something and reaching goals we set out for ourselves are fundamental aspects to all of our lives. But progress and the path towards ‘success’ should not be the only lens through which we view the events in our lives. We must take advantage of our time at university and remember why we are ultimately there— to learn and grow as human beings. We must work against the pressures society inflicts on us to fall into place on the hedonic treadmill.