The hedonic treadmill. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. How many of us are just trudging forward? We convince ourselves that we’re making progress, making a better life, but actually we’re walking in place on a level surface. Getting nowhere.
It’s like a depressing scene out of The Phantom Tollbooth, meant to teach clever children to temper their expectations.
In case you aren’t familiar, the “hedonic treadmill” concept refers to a set point for contentment, or ennui arising from personal stasis, or some combination thereof. Here’s an explanation fromShane Frederick (bona fide Yale professor! for whatever that’s worth):
The lack of evidence for a relation between objective circumstances and reported well-being has given rise to the concept of a hedonic treadmill, on which humans’ happiness remains stationary, despite efforts or interventions to advance it. The metaphor is also interpreted to mean that humans’ happiness will decline if their material circumstances remain constant.
When I reflect on my state of mind over the past couple of years, it’s obvious that I’m on the hedonic treadmill. My current life is sooooo superior to its previous iterations, and yet I feel existentially dissatisfied.
I’m cheerful enough on a moment-to-moment basis, but ambition is pressing on my back all the time. Constantly I feel driven to do better, to be better. When I accomplish a goal that I’ve been driving toward, the joy is fleeting.
Do I need improve at actively appreciating what I already have?
Counting your blessings as a hedonic treadmill mitigation strategy? "Everything she listed eased her irritation into a smaller, tighter package, until she was able to get rid of it altogether." Screenshot from my @readwiseio email of the day. pic.twitter.com/KdqJWT5Hgf
The conclusion that material circumstances have no effect on welfare seems implausible and objectionable, because it implies that economic inequality is irrelevant, that the poor would be no better off if they were rich. [But] data showing that subjective ratings of happiness remain constant despite objectively improving circumstances could instead be explained by a satisfaction treadmill, whereby improving circumstances lead individuals to adopt successively higher aspirations for the amount of enjoyment they regard as acceptable.
I guess the idea of a satisfaction treadmill is marginally less despair-inducing. You develop higher standards! That’s an improvement right????? But if it doesn’t improve your subjective experience, what’s the point.
How about you, dear readers? Do you feel like you’re on the hedonic treadmill? Or a satisfaction treadmill, or some other mood-related gym equipment, like an elliptical? Hedonic weightlifting with progressive overload would be the best thing, I suppose.
Please recommend strategies for coping with persistent internal discontent. (I know, I know, I should meditate.)
When I attempted college for the first time, it took about a month for everyone involved to figure out that I was not ready to live on my own, away from familiar surroundings and my support system. I had a nervous breakdown, sobbed on the phone to my mom, and that was that. The next day she drove twelve hours from the San Francisco Bay Area to Reed College in Portland, OR, then drove twelve hours back with me and all of my stuff in the minivan. I’ve been at home with my parents ever since, for three years now.
During the month that I spent trying to Be A Real College Student, I got a pet rabbit. My dorm allowed small animals, and I was incredibly lonely, on the shy and timid side. In other words, I was desperate for comforting companionship. I looked at Craigslist ads, emailed a guy advertising baby Rex Rabbits, and paid him $25 as the adoption fee, plus $10 for the cage. Then Doof was mine! (His full name is Doctor Doofenshmirtz — I named him after the villain from Phineas and Ferb. Everyone hassles me about this because Doof is a very elegant rabbit whose proper name should be Shadow Prince or something like that.)
This new little creature was small and very scared and velvety black. I left the door of his cage open, and eventually he hopped out to explore my room. Soon he discovered that wainscoting is a great thing to chew on, as are rain boots and backpacks and especially laptop chargers. During the following days I learned that he enjoyed munching on leaves and grass, as well as peeing on things outside of his cage, like my bed. A little harness-and-leash dealio from Petco allowed me to take him for walks on the gorgeous green campus lawns. My fellow students were very enthused about this. Who wouldn’t be enthused about an adorable, curious baby bunny exploring the bushes and gamboling on the lawn?
Doof was my emotional support animal, although I didn’t know this vocabulary when I bought him. According to the ADA National Network website, emotional support animals “provide companionship, relieve loneliness, and sometimes help with depression, anxiety, and certain phobias, but do not have special training to perform tasks that assist people with disabilities.” (A psychiatric service animal performs similar functions, but does have the specialized training, and a different legal status.)
Here’s the hard truth, the truth that I’m ashamed to admit: when I got Doof, I was not equipped to care for him properly. I had the money for his pellets and hay, but I didn’t do enough research about rabbits’ needs. More crucially, I didn’t have the emotional energy to deal with getting a wild animal situated. Rabbits are domesticated in terms of appearance — selective breeding has made them damn cute and fluffy — but on the inside, centuries of evolution carry far more weight.
Rabbits in the wild are busy busy busy: foraging for food, keeping track of territory (yes, they’re highly territorial), and maintaining a social hierarchy with the other bunnies in their warren. Pet rabbits get bored, like the unfortunate dogs who are left at home alone all day. Without appropriate stimulation, bored animals will destroy your stuff. More importantly, they experience stress, and even anguish.
Unlike dogs, rabbits are prey animals, meaning that they are cautious and easily scared. To form a mutually beneficial relationship with your bunny, you have to be patient, learn to express affection the way rabbits do, and sort of individually domesticate your pet. Doof and I developed a very sweet relationship — he would lick my hand and I would rub his cheeks — but I wasn’t successful when it came to providing an environment with enough activities. I couldn’t live up to the responsibility that I had taken on.
Things turned out okay, because my mom came and rescued me. Now Doof and his friend Pumpkin live in my backyard along with our chickens, happily eating fallen leaves from the old apple tree, digging worrisome tunnels toward the fence, and bossing each other around. I miss living in close quarters with my bunny, getting those tiny bun-kisses, but the relationship we have now is much more satisfying to both of us. I know that he is able to fulfill the crucial desires so deeply encoded in his brain. It gives me a rush of joy to see Doof grooming Pumpkin, because I know their bond is precious to them. (In the wild they would be mates, but all of the rabbits I’ve owned are neutered, and yours should be too.)
I’m not trying to scare you away from getting an emotional support animal. I’m saying that an emotional support animal is a serious commitment. Whenever you get a pet, you are making a promise to that animal. The promise is, “I will take care of you, be kind to you, and do my best to make you happy.” Each of us has to seriously assess what “my best” is. If you’re brutally honest with yourself, your best effort might fall short of what the animal requires. You may need to get yourself to a healthier place before you can give a vulnerable creature what it needs.
Emotional support animals provide the emotional support in their title because you must cherish and care for them. There are days when you can’t tell yourself, “I want to live,” but you can say, “I have to live because someone needs to feed Sookie and she’s bonded to me.” In my own struggle with debilitating depression, animals have been immeasurably helpful. They remind me that food is the most important thing, that well-placed scritches are also important, and that digging holes is a good thing to do any day of the week. Animals lead comparatively simple lives. When their needs are met, the satisfaction is pure and strong, for both the pet and the caretaker. Meeting their needs is the essence of a positive human-animal relationship.
If you intend to get an emotional support animal, or any kind of pet, here are some things to remember: Adopt instead of buying! Don’t be like me and get a baby animal — rescue one of the thousands of older animals who struggle to find a home. Do a TON of research beforehand. More research than you think you need to do. Look up what the problems can be with the species that you’re considering. If you’re interested in bunnies, I recommend the book Understanding Your Rabbit’s Habits by Tamsin Stone. And hang in there, okay? Remember that emotional support can come from humans too. We’re all rooting for you.
Posted in commemoration of Doof and Pumpkin, two sweet deceased bunnies.
I’ve been twenty-one for two months. A little more than two months. The day after my birthday, my boyfriend and I ordered draft beer and crab cakes at a local pub. I was affronted because they didn’t card me.
I’ve been drinking intermittently since the end of eighth grade — June of 2009, when I had just turned fifteen, or was about to. Of course, for the first three years of possible alcohol imbibition I hardly ever did it. Maybe that’s not “of course” — high-schoolers get fucked up too, I suppose. The problem is availability. Sure, I drank during high school! But not frequently.
I shouldn’t admit this but one time my friend and I shoplifted pear-flavored vodka from the Lucky store in Hercules. We brought empty water bottles and a big purse. Nipped into the bathroom to commit the crime. I was an incredibly dumb kid.
My real bad-choices drinking happened the summer after I turned eighteen, when I briefly lived away from my parents. I like to tell this funny-but-embarrassing story about how I vomited on a girl — it was our first date! — because I could not handle myself and how she was really nice about it and we kept romancing until she went back to school in late August.
Probably the same month I kissed a friend out of the blue at a party and it was so awkward. Earlier, or maybe later, I invited some dude from OkCupid to visit the apartment; he assaulted me on the elevator when I made him leave. Ugh. I was only brave enough to berate him over text the next day. Those incidents made me calm down and abstain more. I learned that I should stop mixing drinks once I feel buzzed. Since then I’ve tripped up a couple of times and gotten stupid, sloppy drunk.
Only a couple of times. At the Andrew Jackson Jihad concert in San Francisco, but I don’t remember doing anything to be ashamed of. A weekend in May while watching TV with my boyfriend and his roommate, who I harangued about Mad Max for hours (among other topics, including his business). Hindsight is twenty-twenty and memories are mortifying.
Despite all that, so far I have managed to keep my relationship with alcohol healthy. It’s a miracle because depression runs in my family — it ran right into me — plus alcoholism afflicted one grandfather and at least one great-uncle. I see my peers use alcohol as an oblivion accelerant. When I “party”, I do the same thing.
I would get drunk a lot more if I were less stingy.
Today I got home from work and went straight for the shandy in the fridge. I drank two cold bottles. I drank a glass of lemonade — just regular lemonade — that my dad made. I contemplated all of this, my emotional relationship to alcohol and how I have to be careful not to drink every night, not to let it become my default way to soothe frustration. There is too much frustration for a habit like that.
“Misery is a stronger emotion than happiness, and catastrophes punctured their minds and reshaped their sense of their lives in a way that ordinary contentment did not.” So writes Larissa MacFarquhar regarding a couple who adopted twenty children, ending up with twenty-two kids total (before the deaths, that is).
Personally, my planned route to motherhood is adoption, but twenty seems excessive. Regardless, I wonder: Is it true? Is pain more potent than joy? Is it really so easy to disregard “ordinary contentment” and focus on the half-empty glass?
My own experience yields a complex answer. When I’m unhappy, it’s all I can think about. On the other hand, when I’m happy I can only vaguely conceive of being miserable. During periods of cheer and energy, it’s easy to remember that the profound sadness happened once. Sure, I can pull up the words to describe the feeling — typical cliches: numb, exhausted, wallowing in despair, etc. However, knowing what to say about depression is different from being mired in it.
MacFarquhar’s article about the astonishingly large family addresses grief, a type of misery with which I’m less familiar. I’ve known a few people who died — one grandmother, one grandfather, and two grade-school classmates’ mothers. Maybe when someone integral to your daily happiness dies, it shatters everything quickly the way depression shatters everything in slow-motion.
Unhappiness can inspire a person to obscure their emotions, to pile distractions on top. For example, in an interview on The Billfold, author Sarah Hepola told Ester Bloom, “Booze is a pain management system, and when you remove the anesthesia, you really see the source of your misery.” It’s underneath a bunch of mood-moderation junk.
I wouldn’t say that unhappiness is “stronger” than its counterpart. But it’s plausible that bad feelings trump good ones when both are theoretically present. That makes evolutionary sense, right? You might have to take action based on pain, so it needs to be top-of-mind. On the other hand, contentment frees you to think about other things.
Here’s something I’ve been told about depression, both personally and generally: “It’s not your fault.” This sentiment is usually extended to any kind of mental illness. From one perspective, it’s true. We are all products — or rather victims — of brain chemistry and circumstance. No one gets to choose their genetics or how they’re treated by other people.
You gotta roll with the punches. Unfortunately, some of us are bad at rolling. Just because. We didn’t decide to default to stupid coping methods, and most of us can’t change our patterns without help. That’s normal and okay, positivity, blah blah blah, etc. The availability of help is crucial. Without health insurance, I would be sleeping on the streets, or dead, which is a cliche so I’m not sure how to state it with enough impact.
As a mentally ill person, I know the experience of suffering because your mind is beyond your control. (I’m tempted to say “formerly mentally ill”, because of ~stigma~, but it’s not something that goes away when the pills are working.) And yet… I have also human agency. To some degree my emotional experience is my fault, at least according to common ideas about how society works.
Author Alexandra Erin noted on Twitter, “So many systems that make up whatever you want to call ‘civilization’ depend on the participants abiding by certain minimal expectations.” It’s hard to blunder into abiding by such expectations, especially en masse — we do it on purpose, and we’re proud of that. Our species is smitten with the semblance of free will. I feel like I make choices.
“You’re born with particular DNA programming, which determines how you perceive and process outside stimuli, thus shaping your progress as a person, as a human psycho-physiological entity. Nature is what determines your reaction to nurture, and you don’t have any control over either. They both affect you, certainly, but not in a way that you can manipulate independently of who you already are… it gets circular. [Bold added.]
And yet we think that we have the power to decide things without reference to our formative contexts. Regardless of my philosophical position, my brain is convinced that it is reasonable. Accordingly, society is built on the idea of responsibility for one’s actions. I’m not saying that it shouldn’t be! As far as I can tell there’s no alternative. But how interesting, that the entire system of civilization is constructed around a logical fallacy.”
On the one hand, this is sort of freeing. “I’m not responsible for being useless and sad all the time!” On the other hand, if nothing is your fault, then you also don’t have any choices.
Battered spouses are often told that they didn’t choose to stay with their abusers after the first incidence of violence (whether emotional or physical). Victims are counselled not to blame themselves. Safety expert Gavin de Becker finds this rhetoric harmful, as he explains in The Gift of Fear. Most advocates contend that abusers forcibly shape reality for their targets, until escape options become invisible. In his book, de Becker argues that this attitude is problematic. If it’s not a choice to stay, then it can’t be a choice to leave. He suggests that empowering abuse survivors requires encouraging accountability for a person’s own abuse. That’s very tricky to do in a non-toxic way.
Are you responsible for your history? Which events and experiences can be traced to your decisions, and which can’t?
“It says you are powerless, that your destiny is entirely determined by the luck of the draw, that the only chance you have of winning the game lies in following the rules, and accepting the cards as they come. Who wants to grow up in that kind of universe?”
Really, that’s the only universe we can grow up in. My friend Adam Brinklow commented on Facebook, “I assumed the real lesson [of Candy Land] was to cheat. Cheating being the only means of affecting the outcome.” I wish that cheating were more than a predictable reaction to stimuli… exactly like all other actions.