'Rewards are the means of all government' proclaimed US President John Adams. A principle it would seem we have adopted in most areas of our lives, from the gold stars and prizes we give to our children and the incentives applied at work, to religious tales of paradise after death. But there is evidence of an underlying danger with this approach. Studies now show rewards can damage wellbeing. Psychologists have found they foster dependence and undermine our internal sense of control. While neuroscientists have shown those more prone to seeking reward have a 70% higher risk of addiction, with addictive behaviour now present in almost 50% of the U.S. population.
Should we seek to wean ourselves off reward and instead learn to be content with experiencing the present for its own sake? Might it be time to adopt an Aristotelian or Stoic framework where action and virtue are seen as their own ends, rather than as a means to future benefit? Or is the current culture of reward in personal and professional settings not only hugely beneficial to our everyday lives but a much more effective means of social intervention than the punishment regimes of the past?