{Big Ideas} The Hedonic Treadmill, Revisited: It’s All Fun and Games Until Somebody Gets Hurt

An Essay on Contentment and the Hedonic Treadmill | Heather Martin for RedWhiteandGrew.png

Editor’s Note: This is a response, by way of guest post, to my hedonic treadmill piece. The author is one of my favorite humans, Heather Martin of Mom of No Rank. (The photo of Woodlawn Avenue (above) is hers, too.)

When my older son had his first preschool party, which he was very excited to attend, he came home disappointed. “It wasn’t even real fun! We just had music and food, but that was it.” I’m not sure what he expected. Perhaps the cartoon version with crazed grins and confetti and balloons dropping from the ceiling? But it was the same room, the same friends, and the same teacher–only there was cake. I often wish that self-help books and life coaches and Buddhist teachings used the word “contentment” rather than happiness. Happiness is carrying a heavy burden on its back. That’s what makes the pursuit of it as an abiding state…well, a bit like being on a treadmill. There’s no finish line. It doesn’t exist.

Contentment is where it’s at.

An important point about this is that finding contentment in the present moment means just that – this present moment. Wholehearted embracing of the reality of the present moment just as it is, including your emotional reaction to it, and with total acceptance of it and all its causes and effects, may mean that you choose to attempt to influence the situation in the next moment.

Consider the example of unexpected rain.

If you are walking outside, and it begins to rain, your first response may be discontent. Perhaps you just don’t want to get wet, or it will be inconvenient. You may be carrying something important or on your way to a place where it will be less than ideal to be wet, such as a job interview or a very cold office. Your discontent, unchecked by the practices of acceptance and gratitude, may grow to the point that it overwhelms the actual implications of the situation. You may add feelings of victimhood and catastrophe – Why does it always rain on ME? Why did it have to rain on me NOW?  This will RUIN my job interview! — on top of the natural dissatisfaction with getting soaked. It can add nervousness, anger, confusion, and have real effects on the actions you take. This may even happen if you have an umbrella or a doorway to duck into. “Ugh! Now I have to open my umbrella and drag this wet thing around all day!”

If you have been practicing attentive and gentle cultivation of contentment, however, your second thought may be something along the lines of “Oh! It’s raining. Rain is a thing that happens sometimes to every being that has ever lived on Earth, or ever will.” This will lessen your discontent with the present moment. You will just get wet, and just be appropriately unhappy or inconvenienced by getting wet, without piling the catastrophe of victimhood on top. You might even find some gratitude. “I’m so glad I brought my umbrella!”

This can have a nice side effect. Sometimes, when I contemplate finding a way to be content, I wonder whether this will lead to complacency, but I think this is a misunderstanding of how the hedonic treadmill works; you may acclimate to discomfort as well as comfort, remember, and this is especially true if you aren’t paying attention. Complacency is not a function of contentment, but rather a result of letting things pass by for good or ill without turning the eye of acceptance and gratitude toward them. If you attend gently and kindly to your actual experience of the present moment, it can actually make you less likely to be complacent, whether you notice being generally content or very unhappy. As a result, you may find avenues you would otherwise have missed or discounted or feared, and take them in the next present moment. (Or, you might not. That is also okay.) This attention can also make you more compassionate the next time you come upon someone who is angry or sad about getting caught in the rain.

It’s all well and good when it’s just a little rain, isn’t it? If you’ve lost a loved one, or gotten a dire diagnosis, or your marriage is crumbling, contentment is pretty unlikely to be your hundredth thought, let alone your second. There will be hard times, times when you are not content for an extended period. When this is happening, it is so very important not to hurt yourself with the practice of equanimity. Be discontent. Rage. Cry. Mope. In short, be content with your discontent and disappointment and anger. When there are tiny breaks in the pain (and there will be), try to notice. Just notice the absence of pain, without judgment. Whenever you are ready, you can try zooming in during one of those little breaks to find gratitude in a tiny, tiny thing.

Find connectedness in the knowledge that countless others have felt exactly, precisely what you are feeling now. Find joy in a cloud shaped like a rubber duck. Find contentment in breathing in and out in a cool breeze, if only for this one present moment.

Thanks, Heather (a.k.a. @MomofNoRank), for this contribution to RedWhiteandGrew.com.