A Hamster Wheel of Joy
Maybe for this coming new year, we can resolve to hold on to happiness just a little longer.
Feel like you're constantly in that proverbial hamster wheel? No, I’m not talking about busyness or the ‘rat race’ that we often find ourselves in - although they can be part of this topic too.
What I’m referring to is a certain series of feelings that I’m sure are familiar to all of us: you manage to reach a goal, enjoy the moment in all its glory and then after a little while, you feel like you're no more or less happy about this than before.
That initial satisfaction of achievement becomes harder to hold on to and eventually fades out completely. A fitness program is actually a great example of this. You see results, get used to having them, and then don’t really see them anymore after a while. Even though they are still very much there.
So why is that? Why do we feel great about something for a time and then things just kind of fall back into the same mental space not long afterwards?
Could it be that we’re never really happy for long because things are just never really enough?
Why is joy doomed to fade?
Are we just greedy?
Greed can be defined as the desire for more than what is deserved and always for one's own interest. Sometimes even at the detriment of others. This behavior manifests itself with food, money, status, attention, sex and anything else that can make us feel good overall. Once we attain the desired object or outcome, it makes us happy…but again - not for very long.
Allow me to paint a real-life picture for you. The scene is at a company I used to work for and it’s set at lunchtime. Some of my co-workers and I are having lunch. Someone somewhere had a board meeting and they put the leftover food in the lunch room for all to enjoy.
What happens next has always baffled me. Many of the same people who I saw eating their lunch (not even half an hour before) are now packing paper plates with the leftover boardroom treats as if it were their last chance at food.
To round out the picture, here are some select gems I've witnessed and will likely never forget:
Muffins being flattened and stuffed into pant pockets
Pizza slices being placed directly into used, plastic grocery bags to enable more slices to be carried (I gag every time I read this)
People I just had lunch with who mere minutes ago told me they were diagnosed with high blood pressure stuffing themselves with lunch number two (and no one's going easy on the Ranch dressing either if you catch my drift)
So what gives? Could it really be that we toss aside all reason when coming face to face with momentary joy like free food?
Drop off a few donuts in their late-day stages of rigor mortis and it’s suddenly banana time in the monkey cage?
As it turns out, this may actually be who we really are.
All about the base
There is an interesting theory called the Hedonic Treadmill. This theory states that regardless of what happens to people, their levels of perceived happiness will eventually return to their baselines.
It’s not greed – it’s nature.
Lottery winners have been shown to return to their original levels of happiness after the novelty of their big win wears off. On the more negative side of life, people who experienced major accidents – even with serious physical and emotional trauma – tend to return to their pre-accident levels of happiness after a period.
Euphoria fades, anger stills, grief regresses. The emotional extremes that we experience in life eventually come back to a certain baseline.
It’s simply a part of us that gives us the ability to continuously adapt to ever-changing situations.
But this also makes us crave more and be satisfied with less.
Too much of a good thing
When it comes to food, the first bite of a delicious treat brings about a rush of joy. But each later bite brings less and less of this joy. Eventually, the treat doesn't bring about the same positive feelings at all.
So, in a way, I can’t judge my ravenous co-workers too harshly. They were simply following a natural mechanism that may have caught them at a vulnerable time (stressful environment or time period, the afternoon slide into nap time, etc.).
I was once right there myself loading up my plate with boardroom leftovers. That is before I managed a physical transformation that also came with some unexpected mental changes.
What that gave me is a new set of eyes and something more valuable to nurture and preserve.
Now before you think that I feel like I’ve figured this thing out and can look at those former co-workers in hindsight while thinking that I’m somehow better – well, not so much.
By jumping off the feeding frenzy treadmill, I jumped onto the fitness treadmill. And although one has more rewards in the long run, they both have the potential for negative outcomes. I have numerous gym injuries to demonstrate this.
Take a look at competitive bodybuilding for example. It’s the epitome of “never enough”. You’re never big enough, muscular enough or vascular enough. This perpetuates steroid use and has cost too many people their health and even their lives.
The lessons learned from the awareness of this treadmill is that the pursuit of pleasure can sometimes lead you right off the cliff.
But does that mean sacrificing ambition?
Eyes on the prize, but…
No, it just means being aware of the existence of this treadmill or hamster wheel. There is nothing wrong with wanting more in life, but maybe we put far too much value on an end goal.
What often matters more is the level of joy each step taken towards the end goal gives you and those your care about the most. Holding on to this joy is the real prize.
Perhaps it helps to look at a journey as not just attempting to reach an ultimate state, but a series of achievements that each deserve attention and thorough enjoyment.
Holding on to happy
It wouldn’t be very nice of me to talk about this topic without offering some info on how to take some control of the hedonic treadmill.
There are many tips all around the massive world of the internet about how to make happiness last, but I took the liberty of putting together the main ideas into a concise, relatively short list here.
Hint: the common theme is ‘awareness’:
Simplify: try to reduce multitasking. Keeping things as uncomplicated as possible allows for more focus and being in the moment.
Hobbies: give yourself some time to work on hobbies. Starting, working on and completing hobbies can be a consistent source of satisfaction.
Meaningful targets: as much as possible, work towards goals you want to achieve instead of what you feel obligated to do. Celebrate your small achievements.
Spend time with loved ones: another guaranteed way to consistent joy. Perhaps increase the effort you put into close relationships. Go on a date with your significant other. Spend more time with your kids.
Practice gratitude: a powerful tool. My last post just so happens to be about this topic, so check it out here for further reading.
Allow yourself to be human: rejecting negative emotions such as fear and anxiety leads to frustration. Accept your full range of emotions.
Don’t overdo the things that feel good: for example, I save my favorite foods and drinks for a day on the weekend (a “treat day”) – a little denying yourself doesn’t just have the effect of making you healthier in the long run, but it allows you to continuously feel the small pleasures in life – such as a delicious food or drink – without adaptation.
I'd be remiss to not mention exercise here. Being mindful of the mind-body connection is a big help with continued cultivation of good feelings. From the simplest - such as the feeling of being energized right after a good workout, to seeing an improved version of yourself in the mirror after completing a workout program.
The bottom line:
No one is exempt from the hamster wheel of joy. We run on this wheel constantly whether we realize it or not. The problem is that no matter what we achieve while running on it, the race continues to the next shiny object that we hope will bring us satisfaction. We end up in a continuum of finding and fading happiness.
This does not mean we shouldn’t seek improvement. But there’s nothing wrong with the ability to savor the all-too-short moments of joy we get for a little while longer. In fact, this ability may very well create a positive environment for further improvement.
By slowing down a bit to focus on a few select points in our lives, we may just be able to stretch out the enjoyment of small victories. Some even for the rest of our lives.
Awareness of our more subconscious, small actions can add up to the big reward of feeling happy longer.
Until next time,
Have a happy, healthy new year and may it bring you lasting joy!
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