Have we turned into Human "Doings"?
One of the ways the technological revolution has created difficulty for human beings to experience joy is by stripping away the awareness to also be human doings. Scientists have proven that instantaneous reward, tightly woven throughout society, has fundamentally shifted the machinery responsible for dopamine production and maintenance. This was demonstrated by classically conditioning subjects to expect a taste of sweet fruit juice upon the presence of a light. After enough repetition, researchers found that the level of dopamine produced by the brain in anticipation of the juice was, in fact, higher than the level produced by the actual tasting of the juice.
Perhaps what is more frustrating than the existence alone of that illusory part of consciousness, is that primary awareness of the illusion does not liberate one from its control. Simply put, we are constantly seeking reward. And we’re wired to quickly forget that reward so that we seek it again, keeping us in motion and in pursuit of creation. There was a time where the emotion of happiness came primarily from us physically behaving and moving in ways that benefitted our survival, and the survival of those upon whom we depended. Unfortunately, the modern world has provided us with a capacity to bypass the logic of obtaining rewarding emotional experiences. This serves as a great distraction from what it truly takes to maintain happiness in our lives, instead of living peak to peak, with sharp dips downward in mood between those peaks.
What is the Hedonic Treadmill?
The Hedonic Treadmill refers to the fast and furious quest upon which we embark to achieve happiness, feel it temporarily, and then return to a state of unappreciation. We’re wired to seek pleasurable and adaptive rewards through action, now with every opportunity to stand still and reach for it (the meat in front of the dog on the treadmill). This is also not an attack on the growth mindset. It is an absolute necessity to have goals and be challenged by them to feel “good”. To clarify a commonly misunderstood aspect of mainstream Buddhist philosophy, desiring outcomes is not a contract for suffering. Desiring them and believing it’s a crisis if they are not yet established is what leads to chronic suffering.
3 Ways to Feed Your Mind the Awareness it Needs
If you’ve ever felt unpleasant and disconnected emotionally despite having healthy relationships, material success, and good physical health, it’s possible you’re simply running on the hedonic treadmill. And we know that if you step off a treadmill while the belt is at a high speed, a forceful and possibly damaging impact is made between you and the ground. Try not to make drastic fundamental shifts in functioning overnight, because maintaining happiness is a habitual form of thinking and feeling. And implementing new habits can be uncomfortable, often driving us to return to what is unhealthy and familiar time and time again (the yo-yo lifestyle, the hedonic treadmill’s cousin). Here are some tangible ways you can feed your mind the awareness it needs to sustain a longer term felt sense of happiness:
1. “Three Good Things”
At the end of the day, simply write down three things you were grateful for experiencing that day. Anything that produced even the most minimal sense of satisfaction is acceptable here. It could be that the egg yolks in your breakfast sandwich were the perfect degree of runny, you had your first day without chronic pain in years, and everything in between. This activity fights back against the natural tendency our minds to confirm negative biases and bypass moments that provide contradictory evidence to the idea that “everything” sucks. And because the brain responds to consistency rather than massive, isolated efforts periodically, three items daily in a small notebook bedside has exponential power in maintaining your mood.
2. Narrative Enhancement
An incredibly powerful and overlooked part of our sense of self is the story that is narrating our perception. Humans think and communicate in the form of stories powered by language with symbolism, plotlines, character evolution, rising action, falling action, conclusions, alternate endings, sequels, prequels, etc. If you read a book or watch a film/tv show, the earlier chapters automatically influence us to project what will “likely” occur in the chapters not yet experienced. We don’t have to try to do this; it’s simply a happening. The thematic material in the “story” of you is helping to attach meaning to what is, and what will continue to happen in life. This is especially powerful in the process of healing trauma because of how far away traumatic stress can pull our minds from the facts of a situation. If you rewrote the later chapters in a book without editing any of the previous ones, the story may not make sense and could be anxiety provoking. This may be evident if you’ve watched a show that had a writing staff change, and suddenly plots of season 6 directly contradict what you were so emotionally tied to in season 4.
Take time to write in the exact story you’d like to tell about yourself and the things that you’re experiencing/have experienced. This is using the brains own function to tell a coherent story, even if that story is painful, against it to enact positive change. You can assign a new writing staff to your present and future to pull relevant and adaptive detail from what’s already been deemed negative by the old writing staff. It can even go in your new notebook that you’ve thought about purchasing after reading the “3 Good Things” above.
3. Meditate Daily!
When meditation teachers speak of increasing happiness through acts of mindfulness and breath work, they are referring to the flexion of the brain muscle in returning your attention to the present. If you can lift 20 pounds with your bicep, the muscle “knows” it can withstand the resistance. It doesn’t cause pain to lift that weight because it’s not in danger of being damaged, as it has adapted to the application of that level of resistance over time. The more you apply resistance to your mind by pulling it back against the forceful tendency to wander, the greater it trusts its ability to make that same shift if need be. This too is especially relevant to traumatic stress and the paradoxical nature of feeling discomfort despite a calm, stable environment. With PTSD, the mind is conditioned to believe that if it doesn’t permanently stay on high alert, danger is always around the corner. The painful anxiety is the signal that the mind can’t afford to relax and drop into the present moment. This makes routine engagement socially, academically, occupationally, and spiritually next to impossible, decreasing a felt sense of happiness. Take time, even just a minute upon waking and another minute before sleep, to go inward and notice yourself and your reality exactly as they are.
Starting to take the steps to shift your awareness from the will benefit your mood, create a new practice and allow for you to enjoy Happiness in the present!
Sean O'Connor, LMHC, Sports Psychology Therapist and Trauma Specialist.
Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future.
He works with therapies that include
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) for emotion regulation
Give our office a call at (914) 222-3983 ext. 1 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your free consultation. Limited space available.