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Mood-Related Gym Equipment

On the macro “meh” feeling and dragging my feet.

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.

Forlorn dog on a treadmill. Photos by Jason Kasper.
Photos by Jason Kasper, here and here.

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 from Shane 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?

Shane Frederick again:

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.)

Originally posted on Substack.

Iterative Personal Development

Currently I am slightly obsessed with the concept of iteration. (That was the intent behind my “communicational pliancy” post.) When people talk about iteration in terms of software development — which is the context that I’m familiar with — they mean gradual improvement, tweaking and changing things after “shipping the minimum viable product”.

I want to live my life along the same lines: trying things, gathering information about how well they worked, and then trying something else. Built into this approach is room to experiment, even to fail.

Evolution by Kevin Dooley, made with Ultra Fractal software.
Evolution by Kevin Dooley, made with Ultra Fractal software.

I was talking with a new friend recently about designing systems, especially systems meant to organize people. I cited one of my takeaways from The Design of Everyday Things: you have to expect people to try the “wrong” thing, to misunderstand how the design is supposed to work. People will press every button in every bizarre combination and you have to plan for that. Systems (of all kinds) have to be designed to accommodate failure — if they aren’t, they will eventually self-catastrophize, to coin a phrase. (Just give Zappos a year or two.)

If you squint, this principle applies to one-person systems also. For optimal productivity and happiness, I have to design my own habits and attitudes to accommodate the quirks of human nature, my own specific personality, and the inevitable ill-advised impulse. Iteration seems like a great framework for this, since it’s all about incremental change that leads to gradual improvement.

Meditations On Misery (And Its Opposite)

dark golden abstract art
Artwork by Dalma Szalontay.

“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).

skate trick and onlooking bikers
Photograph by Guilherme Nicholas.

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?

hot pink glitz portrait
Radioactive Talent by Naomi.

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.

Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Lemminkäinen's Mother, 1897
Lemminkäinen’s Mother by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1897; via Adam Ansar.

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.

Chunga I (1969) - Rolando de Sá Nogueira (1921 - 2002)
Painting by Rolando de Sá Nogueira, 1969; via Pedro Ribeiro Simões.

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.

"Allow children to be happy in their own way, for what better way will they find?" ~ Samuel Johnson
Photograph by Vinoth Chandar.

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