Slowing Down the Consumer Treadmill

If solving the climate change problem were as simple as handing out light bulbs, we’d be all set. This April, three dozen humanists paired up like Mormon missionaries and rang doorbells in Cambridge, Massachusetts—but not to spread a message of faith. Instead, they gave away free energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs to residents who surrendered their old-fashioned incandescent bulbs in exchange. Coming at the conclusion of the American Humanist Association’s 2011 conference, this community service project collected a couple hundred energy-hogging bulbs for reuse in children’s crafts projects.

Technological improvements such as better light bulbs are part of the solution to the climate problem. But events like the 2010 BP oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico and the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear complex make it hard to place all one’s faith in large-scale engineering projects. Furthermore, Boston College economist Juliet Schor warns that the growth in consumption has been outpacing efficiency improvements. “We get more efficient, but that makes people want to buy more energy, because it’s effectively cheaper,” she told me. “So you have to control the demand.”

But people typically don’t want less; they want more. That may be why some even deny the reality of climate change. What if we could offer the prospect of more satisfaction, but in a different form that was less damaging to the planet? People could have more of what they really want—to feel good—while purchasing fewer things that depend on atmosphere-polluting industries. The poet Allen Ginsberg had this in mind, in a letter to the Wall Street Journal that commented on American acquisitiveness, when he observed, “You own twice as much rug if you’re twice as aware of the rug.”

Consider this paradox. Although the real, inflation-adjusted income of Americans doubled between 1960 and 1990, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as “very happy” remained at about one-third throughout that period. Yet mainstream economists aligned with both the Republican and Democratic parties continue to assume that economic growth, even on a personal level, is the foundation of wellbeing. In the last thirty years Americans have even been increasing their work hours in order to buy more goods, but as a group we feel no better off. The irony might merely be amusing if manufacturing were pollution-free. Instead, this futile effort is heating up the world.

Psychologists call the phenomenon of chasing after rewards that don’t provide lasting satisfaction the “hedonic treadmill.” A classic example emerged in research showing that people who won big lottery prizes gained an initial bump up in their happiness, but a year later were no happier than before. Why doesn’t more wealth bring more happiness? University of California psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky writes in her 2007 book, The How of Happiness, that among people who live in affluent societies, happiness is due less to life events than to genes and habitual ways of looking at the world.

The compulsion to acquire possessions has often been compared to an addiction. Just as addicts need more and more of their drug to get the same level of pleasure, Americans buy more and more stuff to maintain the same level of satisfaction. This is more than a clever metaphor. Addictions are deformations of a brain system that governs rewards and habits by releasing substances such as dopamine and the internal opioids that are responsible for cravings and “highs.”

The reward system responds most keenly to novelty. When rewards become predictable, the habits system takes over to guide our actions. Just as factory workers doing routine tasks can be replaced by machines, the brain turns over predictable rewards to an “automatic pilot.” So, for instance, if you were to move from a cramped apartment to a lovely and spacious home, at first you would likely take pleasure in the size of the rooms, the beautiful floors, and the extra privacy. Over time, however, you’d become habituated to your living quarters. You would pay less attention to the things that attracted you to it in the first place and take less pleasure in them. That’s when you think about taking out a home equity loan, redoing the kitchen, and buying a new rug.

Given the pervasive advertising culture that urges us to keep on spending, is there any hope for getting us off this treadmill of desire? Psychologists offer a few suggestions to help us reduce cravings and to simply want what we have. Lyubomirsky recommends the practice of gratitude. We think of the great things we already have and, instead of taking them for granted, we express our thankfulness for them. This practice can be dicey for humanists, however. Unlike the theist who thanks a Creator, it may be unclear to whom the humanist should offer thanks.

A better approach may be to acknowledge the riches we already have without necessarily expressing thanks for them. That is the approach we’re taking at the Humanist Contemplative Group at the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy. The group was inspired by a similar group founded by D.T. Strain, former president of the Humanists of Houston, and has been meeting regularly in Cambridge since 2009.

At the recent 70th annual American Humanist Association conference, I participated in a panel on secular meditation with Strain and Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar, whose research has demonstrated that mindfulness practice leads to increases in gray matter density in the brain. At that panel, I announced the Humanist Contemplative Group’s new initiative called, “Seeing the Roses.” This is a project to teach the practice of mindfulness to counter the consumer treadmill. Sessions convey scientific information about mindfulness—defined as nonjudgmental attention to the present moment—and provide instruction on how to achieve this state of mind. For those outside the Boston area, short videos have been placed online at and YouTube in an attempt to convey the same experience.

The idea of the Seeing the Roses project is to promote the attitude expressed by the familiar phrase, “stop and smell the roses,” but on a more continual basis and by engaging all the senses—especially sight. It involves slowing down, paying more attention, and taking more pleasure out of the ordinary world around us.

The economist Juliet Schor, in her 2010 book, Plenitude, advocates a path to sustainability in which people work shorter hours, so they earn less and spend less, but have more free time to enjoy life. With less money, they’ll have to spend their leisure time in a less resource-intensive and more leisurely way. “In general, doing things faster tends to use more resources,” Schor said. “To truly get to sustainability, we’re going to have to slow down.” Schor spoke of a conversation she’d had with the late Donella Meadows, lead author of the landmark 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, in which Meadows shared her sentiment when she noted that“the speed of human activity has gotten out of sync with the speed of ecosystems.”

The only problem with this vision is that going fast is exciting and slowing down is boring—unless you’re mindful about it. Mindfulness generates novelty to excite the dopamine neurons not by covering a lot of ground fast, but by delving deeper into familiar turf. Unless we can learn to be mindful, we’ll be at the mercy of advertisers who crank up the consumer treadmill to run faster and faster.

Mindfulness is a practice with roots in Buddhism but also in the Western psychological tradition going back at least to William James. It is the cultivation of attention. When you pay close attention, you override the habit system’s automatic pilot. Take a look around you. How many things do you see that would have amazed King Louis XIV of France? You are rich already.

Mindfulness is often associated with meditation, because meditation quiets the inner dialogue that takes one out of the present moment into ruminations about the past or anxieties about the future. When people emerge from formal sitting meditation, they often report an inner stillness and a heightened awareness to external sights and sounds. One’s sense of distaste or aversion to the present moment drops away. Yoga, too, teaches mindfulness through the practice of attention toward one’s posture and movements.

But one can be mindful without meditating. Consider the words of pioneering ecologist Rachel Carson in her book, The Sense of Wonder (published posthumously in 1965):

Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils, and finger tips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression. For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”

This exquisite way of sensing the world is what mindfulness is about, and what we need to cultivate in young people to keep them off the consumer treadmill.

Ellen Langer is a Harvard psychologist with an office in the school’s psychology building, which happens to be named William James Hall. Langer’s first academic paper on mindfulness, published in 1978, approached it from the Western academic tradition. Langer said that most people don’t know the right way to pay attention—they confuse it with staring.

At a talk at MIT’s Media Lab, she asked those of us present to hold out a finger and pay attention to it. “Is this boring or what?” Langer quipped. “Now mindfully attend to your finger, and that means notice different things about it,” she instructed. “You should feel the difference. Attending mindfully is easy.”

If mindfulness produces a sense of freshness and novelty, why is it so hard to pay attention? Langer says she’s asked students and teachers what it means to pay attention. “They all say, ‘hold the image still as if you’re looking through a camera.’ It’s the wrong instruction,” she adds gruffly.

Staring leads to boredom. Paying mindful attention means looking at the same old thing in new ways—examining overlooked details or glancing at it from a different angle. “Mindfulness is energy begetting, not consuming,” says Langer. “It’s the way you are when you’re at leisure, when you’re traveling.”

It is also the artist’s way of seeing. In her 1979 book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, art teacher Betty Edwards provides an exercise in which students are asked to copy an upside-down portrait of the composer Igor Stravinsky. It’s easier to make accurate copies from upside-down originals because when viewing an image upside-down, we observe the lines and shadows as they actually are. When viewed from a familiar vantage point, in contrast, our habitual expectation of what something should look like influences how we portray it. We might, for instance, draw a swimming pool as a rectangle, failing to notice that its far end appears narrower to the eye due to perspective.

A theory is emerging of how mindfulness gets done in the brain, down to the microcircuit level. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel lays it out in his 2007 book, The Mindful Brain. Siegel’s ideas rely on the work of cognitive scientists like Stephen Grossberg of Boston University, whose model drills down to the way individual neurons in the cerebral cortex are organized into horizontal layers stacked in columns. Briefly summarized, our perceptions are the outcome of a battle between lower layers that push up what our senses take in and higher layers that push down signals that modulate them. “The top-down signals are basically learned expectations,” Grossberg told me.

Expectations are a stabilizer. Without them, we’d feel discombobulated all the time as we try to make sense of the kaleidoscope of sights and sounds assaulting our senses. According to Grossberg, expectations shape and modify perception. We see what we are in the habit of seeing, unless the mismatch between our expectations and reality is very significant.

The level of mismatch we tolerate is controlled by the neurochemical acetylcholine. As we pay attention with greater vigilance, we notice more mismatches between expectations and reality. Mismatches mean we’re experiencing something novel. Because our habit system’s automatic pilot can’t handle the unexpected, mismatches get kicked up to consciousness. As they’re novel and unexpected, these mismatches likely get the dopamine neurons in the reward system going. Life becomes more vivid and engaging.

This model is in line with the work of University of Michigan psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, who have studied the restorative effects of being in nature. They theorize that because of its inherent variety and novelty, nature grabs our attention and promotes the bottom-up flow of sensations. This is what Rachel Carson was referring to when she wrote of “opening up the disused channels of sensory impression.”

Siegel, who is co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, has connected these ideas about bottom-up and top-down flows to mindfulness. When I interviewed him, I asked how people variously perceive a rose. “Depending on the relative dominance of each flow,” he responded, “you can literally not bother to even experience an awareness of the scent and just think ‘Rose. Who cares? I’m late for work,’ or you can mindfully let the top-down not imprison you and spend even just five seconds with as pure a connection with the scent and sights of the rose or the thing that’s in front of you as possible.”

Siegel even thinks that mindfulness can be an antidote to consumerism: “It’s going to take a huge paradigm shift, and maybe mindfulness is the key, to let people lower their materialistic treadmill tendencies, to awaken their minds to simple pleasures and meaningful connections in life and then to refocus their energies in ways that are truly meaningful—helping other people, building communities, finding a way to preserve the environment.”

Once you learn it, mindfulness can be fun, even enthralling. It can restore a sense of freshness to the things you have, so that you feel fewer cravings to replace them with brand new models. But is there really evidence that it results in less consumption?

Kirk Warren Brown is a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, who studies mindfulness. He is the co-creator of the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale, which measures how predisposed a person is to be mindful. One’s score is based on answers to a series of questions such as, “I find myself listening to someone with one ear, doing something else at the same time.” Brown and his colleagues have found mindfulness to be more prevalent among people who adopt a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, choosing not to maximize earnings but to focus instead on simple pleasures. Brown found these simplifiers to be just as happy as their more materialistic peers, matched by age and zip code. More recently, Brown studied whether a four-week mindfulness training program lessened financial desire—the wish to “keep up with the Joneses.” He found that to the extent participants learned to be more mindful, they were happier and felt less financial desire. The results seem promising. Some people can shift onto a path of mindfulness, simplicity, and reduced materialism that actually increases their happiness.

Brown defines mindfulness more broadly than simple awareness of one’s immediate environment. “Someone can be very mindful of their thinking,” Brown told me. “It’s like there is this observer who is watching the show as well as part of the action.” Being mindful of your purchasing habits, for instance, is a crucial step in making them more ecologically sustainable. But first, one must enjoy simplicity, because without that, one won’t embrace it voluntarily.

Juliet Schor advocates a more leisurely consumer society than the one we have now, but not an impoverished society. Nor does Schor advocate anti-growth legislation that would mire the economy in recession. In fact, she says her program is one of cultural change that could be led by young people insisting on the freedom to limit the length of their own workday and to consume responsibly. American consumer trends, she observes, are models emulated throughout the globe. “In south India, where my husband is from,” she said, “the middle classes there are mad for organic vegetables.”

I firmly believe that mindfulness can play an essential supporting role in a move toward a slower paced and more sustainable society. The question is, can we get people to adopt it? Some, like Rachel Carson, have a natural affinity toward a contemplative outlook. But others may have a different disposition, and gadgets like the iPhone and Xbox may well be training young people to have shorter attention spans.

Still, all it takes to get a taste of mindfulness is twenty minutes of meditation—best done initially with others who can provide training and tips. That’s quicker than some sitcoms, and a lot quicker than trying to understand the science behind climate change. Scientific research on mindfulness is just getting rolling, so further research may uncover easier ways of attaining a mindful state—just the thing for people who can’t sit still for twenty minutes.

Perhaps we can think of technological change more broadly—not just more efficient wind farms but also cognitive methods that help us achieve happiness while relying on fewer material resources. Humanistic values that put compassion and empathy ahead of acquisition may be critical in avoiding the worst scenarios of climate change, but they will only prevail if we can apply insights gained from scientific research to endow them with greater appeal than the ephemeral pleasures of the marketplace.