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Happiness, Pain, and the Hedonic Treadmill

When reading a book by Mark Manson a few months back, I came across a chapter that discussed how happiness works.

There have been countless studies done to examine long term unhappiness, what causes it, and how the human brain handles various mental disorders connected with unhappiness. But, it wasn’t until the 1980’s that psychologists started to explore happiness and what truly is at the root of it. A study was conducted in which people were asked to answer the following questions every time their pager went off: 


1. On a scale of 1-10, how happy are you at this moment?

2. What has been going on in your life?


Researchers collected thousands of answers from people and the answers to the second question varied greatly. Some people were dealing with the loss of a loved one or extreme stress with work or family which resulted in their happiness number ranging from two-to-five. These people who had unpleasant things going on stayed at this range, but then as the days and weeks went by, their happiness number increased to a seven on the scale. 


On the other end of the spectrum, some of the data collected consisted of people going through what can be looked at as some of the happiest days of their life. Some of the answers included going on dream vacations, getting married, or getting a massive bonus at work. In these instances, their happiness number would spike up for a short period of time, but return back to a steady seven.


So what can we take away from this study? Well two things: 


1. What is a pager? 

2. Everyone is always at a seven.


Nobody is truly happy all of the time and nobody is truly unhappy all the time either. Everyone is at a seven. I think of it like when someone asks you how your day is and 99% of the time, the response is just “good”. We’ve all done it. We had some ups and downs to our day, a few two moments and a few nine moments, but at the end of the day, we’re just floating at a seven. Everything is “good”. Things are always usually fine, but they also could be better, regardless of circumstance or scenario. 


Given this information, you are probably asking yourself, “Well, how happy am I and what is going on in my life?” and the odds are, you are probably right at a seven, despite the good and the bad in your life right now. You probably think that getting to those high numbers and past a seven means doing just a little bit more to get you over the average. 


“If I just had this or do that, then I’d be happy. Then I’d be at a ten.” 


That is how us humans work- constantly chasing the ten. This is known as the “hedonic treadmill.” We constantly run and chase the ten, go out of our way to do something that will get us a ten, and then are back at a seven. 


At this point you have to be wondering how one fixes this solution. After all, running and running gets tiring, especially when there is no reward, no ten. It may be preconceived that in order to be happy, you need to eliminate pain. Get rid of all the things that cause you worry and keep you up at night, the things that make you hate your job, anything and everything that puts you at anything but a ten. But truth be told, the solution to this never-ending cycle is simply to add pain to your life, embrace it, and navigate through it.


When we try to cancel out pain, we dodge the stress, disorder, and chaos that come with it. We shrink ourselves because we want to limit ourselves to how much we can handle. We run from our problems so we don’t have any pain to face. This makes us fragile. The smallest issues will seem like the be-all end-all because we are so out of touch with what is considered a real problem with real pain. 


Our goal should be to accept the fact that pain is inevitable, but we choose to suffer. By picking your pain, we place emphasis on our values. We value our family, so we deal with the agitation that comes along with it. We value having a job that provides us with opportunities and pays well, so we deal with the stress of making a deadline or publicly speaking to members of a team. 


Mark Manson, author and blogger, once expressed, “Life is one never-ending stream of pain, and to grow is not to find a way to avoid that stream but, rather, to dive into it and successfully navigate its depths.”


The pain we endure showcases the values in our life we suffer for. The pain isn’t really pain, but moreso, a result of fighting for our values. In denying pain, we cancel out what it means to value something. 


Without this pain, we would have no values and nothing to fight for. The hedonic treadmill becomes a mere example of life’s unavoidable ups and downs, but we understand that the hardships we encounter at the two’s of life lead us to be grateful for our values when at the ten’s of life. 

Erin was born and raised on Long Island, New York, but currently studies Legal Studies and Political Science at Roger Williams University in beautiful Bristol, RI. Erin enjoys reading and writing and hopes to attend law school in the Fall of 2021.
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