This section explores some of the relevant psychological (and a bit of the neurological) phenomena associated with happiness acting as a hindrance to meaning. Most of these phenomena are most identifiable in Trap 1: Happiness We Chase, but are by no means exclusive.
Peeling Back Bananas
If we remember from the yellow fruit metaphor, a banana is something that we engage with (buy, use, covet) that falls outside of the four cornerstones. Bananas do not contribute to meaning*.
As we peel back what motivates us toward pleasure, let’s follow one through-line example of a classic banana: consumerism.
Read the following story and then check in with how it relates to several psychological phenomena.
Banana Example: The Thing™
Every day after work, you watch television. It feels good to lounge on the couch and laugh along with your favorite shows.
A commercial pops on for The Thing™.
Beautiful, happy people are featured living a beautiful happy life. The people have this beautiful happy life because of The Thing™. The commercial is implying that you can have this beautiful and happy life too. Simply purchase The Thing™.
The Old Thing™ you have doesn’t make you happy the way it used to and The Thing™ seems like it could be what is missing from your life right now. You need it. You buy it.
The Thing™ is pretty nice – no major complaints on any part of it. Your life doesn’t become the commercial but you are enjoying The Thing™ nonetheless. The Thing™ even got you quite a few likes on social media.
Without noticing, The Thing™ slowly becomes less and less significant in your life. You get used to The Thing™ being a part of your life. Your life with The Thing™ is the new normal and you feel no different than you did when you still had The Old Thing™. You continue your routine of watching television after work, the once-new The Thing™ somewhere in the backdrop of your surroundings.
A commercial pops on for The Next Thing™.
Your hopes and interests shoot up. Maybe The Next Thing™ will be the difference, maybe this is what was missing before. You buy it and it feels good to have and post about. And over time it feels less good. And things feel normal.
A commercial pops on.
The Latest Thing™.
The cyclical nature of pleasure indulgence is just one of many phenomena that perpetuates happiness as a hindrance to meaning and joy. However, by identifying these phenomena, we can manage how they influence our lives and reduce their hold on us. In other words, we are going to Rumpelstiltskin bananas.
Adding Psychological Context to Bananas
Let’s unpack some of the phenomena that occurred in the example story of The Thing™.
That banana is better than my banana.
Social comparison, comparing yourself to someone else, is an automatic response that has real evolutionary value stemming from our reptilian brain’s function of scanning for danger and eliciting a biological response. Today’s dangers have shifted away from caveman-vs-lions to social safety, being within acceptable bounds (or better yet, at the top) by engaging in both upward and downward comparisons to those around you. The brain figures out the gap between you and others, then offers an action in the blink of an eye. Our brains look to fill gaps for the sake of social cohesion and status.
I’m a caveman. That’s a lion. I should get out of here.
I’m wearing Nike shoes. Everyone else is wearing Adidas. I should buy some Adidas.
Our reptilian brain is just trying to look out for us and keep us safe, but in today’s world where dangers and threats have shifted considerably, this once life-saving mechanic can be a driver of discontent (giggle though this educational explanation of our two-mindedness with Wait But Why’s ‘Battle of Fire and Light’.) Our brains will always find those gaps between ourselves and others, it’s automatic. When we engage in a higher level of thinking and challenge the solution our brain offers to close the gap, we can better identify the traps we fall into.
Connecting Back to The Thing™
We compared our life with The Old Thing™ to the one depicted in the commercial for The Thing™. Stacked against each other, we found our life without The Thing™ lacking. Our reptilian brain offered closing the gap i.e. purchasing The Thing™ to feel more secure. We may even have perpetuated further Social Comparison by posting about The Thing™ on social media.
Keep in mind, social comparison extends beyond material items. We compare ourselves to others’ status, salaries, job titles, social media presence, and so on. Raj Raghunathan wrote a book called If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Happy? that explored why objectively intelligent and successful people were unhappy. Essentially, the way we measure our success and personal validation defaults to external and non-specific metrics and no one (even super smarty pants) are immune to social comparison. If we attach ourselves to being the ‘best’ in our field or company, there will always be a gap to fill. If those gaps accumulate in our minds, we are heading for misery.
Of course, we are far from doomed from always feeling those gaps. Getting in touch with Element #3 Happiness, Perspective, can alleviate the reliance we feel on external validation. Explore another strategy to cope with social comparison below.
One antidote is shifting away from the idea that there is only so much good to go around and we need to swipe it up before it’s all gone (a scarcity mindset). An abundance mindset considers there to be enough success and happiness to go around, we don’t need to attach ourselves to the success, happiness, or status of whatever we see in the moment.
Sort the following items based on whether they are actually prone to scarcity or if they are simply prone to a perceived scarcity.
**Hover over below to see the answer**
All of the items in the perceived scarcity category are not actually at risk of running out simply because someone else ‘has’ them. With practice, we can shift our thinking about these things toward an abundance mindset where there is enough good to go around.
When we move out of a scarcity mindset, we are less focused on the differences between ourselves and others, which creates space to focus on juicier lemons, ones that provide greater meaning and satisfaction in our individual lives, beyond what society tells us is important.
Hedonic Well-Being / Hedonia
This banana will bring me happiness.
Hedonia is essentially synonymous with happiness (not ‘happiness’) and strictly refers to positive feelings—the experience of pleasure, enjoyment, comfort, absence of distress.
Philosophers have long argued over whether a good life is simply about good feelings (hedonia) or if it includes more as well, like meaning (eudaimonia). Today, psychologists have shifted the conversation away from either/or and are instead exploring the balance and nuance between the meaning and happiness, with psychological richness emerging like a dark horse in the area of a life well lived.
Modern research asks:
Are the subjective, personal measures of satisfaction and ephemeral pleasures the best we can do for measuring a life well-lived, or can we also include some objective measures and deep elements–like meaning and psychological richness—that make life better (sometimes without even feeling ‘good’)?
The latter option is echoed throughout this site, highlighting the role of meaning and purpose, and still leaving room for ephemeral pleasures as an element of joy!
As a clarification point, ‘pleasure’, hedonistic feelings, are the things that feel good. The term hedonism can be modernly associated with a more debacherous connotation of sex, drugs, and alochol, but hedonia also captures the laugh we get from watching comedy and the full-body melt we get from a really good piece of cake.
Connecting Back to The Thing™
The Thing™ is available in the world and we expect the goodness the commercial promised to come to us if we purchase The Thing™. When we purchase The Thing™, we feel excited about owning it.
This banana isn’t as good as it once was.
Hedonic Adaptation is our general ability to get used to both good and bad things in life. Pay raises, new cars or appliances, luxuries like air conditioning or daily lattes – the boost in happiness first felt from these bouts of goodness is not steady over time. Our lives may be continually improved, yet with Hedonic Adaptation there is the sense of sloping back down toward our prior base-level happiness, in other words, we stop noticing how good the good is after a while. The reverse is also true; People who suffer from losing a job or even some level of bodily functioning return to their base happiness over time – the bad isn’t so jarring after awhile, it is adjusted to.
The sensation of returning to baseline well-being is dependent on the initial boost/decline, the change’s lasting impact, individual personality traits and other external factors. While the rate of change is volatile, the phenomenon is widely recognized.
So are we destined to ‘flourish’ or ‘languish’ depending on our brain’s baseline well-being?
No, brain chemistry alone does not dictate the quality of all life, especially when social inequity is at play. Income, social support, and factors like discrimination or access to education all impact our baseline well-being to a degree that a gratitude journal won’t counteract (not that we’re knocking gratitude). A deeper dive into ephemeral pleasure’s role in well-being, including its strengths and limitations, can be found under Element 1 Happiness.
Hedonic Adaptation, for the purposes of understanding how happiness acts as a hindrance to meaning, is understanding that “humans are remarkably resilient, and one of the things that we’re resilient to, unfortunately, is positive change in our lives” as said by Forrest Hanson of the Being Well podcast.
Connecting Back to The Thing™
Once bright, shiny and new, The Thing™ lost its appeal to us over time. We got used to having The Thing™.
The Hedonic Treadmill
This new banana will bring me happiness.
Hedonic Adaptation is the single instance of pleasure waning over time. The Hedonic Treadmill is the seeking and indulging in a new pleasure to make up for the one that is waning.
The brain is excellent at always finding something new to want. The burst of pleasure we get from something new slides down the treadmill, losing its sparkle, until we reach our default happiness and put our attention onto something new.
Connecting Back to The Thing™
After The Thing™ lost some of its initial appeal and became part of normal life, we were once again tempted by the promise of an advertisement. The Next Thing™. The cycle continues and the story ends with a commercial for The Latest Thing™.
To stay on the hedonic treadmill without any inclination to get off is to live into psychological hedonism. Atlantic writer Arthur Brooks writes:
As with everything in life, happiness has its trade-offs. Pursuing happiness to the exclusion of other goals–known as psychological hedonism–is not only an exercise in futility. It may also give you a life that you find you don’t want, one in which you don’t reach your full potential, you’re reluctant to take risks, and you choose fleeting pleasures over challenging experiences that give life meaning.
The Costs of Happiness
A Netflix subscription costs less than the average movie ticket for the most basic monthly package. You could have Netflix streaming continuously for a month straight and never repeat any content (in fact, for under $500, you could have the next four years completely booked up watching non-stop new content!)
Let’s say we did that. Watched Netflix for a month straight. How much did it cost? Just $10?
We know, intuitively, that a month of watching Netflix costs more than $10. Aside from food and electricity, we still have opportunity cost, which is the idea that we lose out on certain gains when we choose to go with one alternative over another. What are the opportunity costs that come with watching Netflix for a month? No income, no time with friends or family, nothing that would have taken away from our month-long binge.
The opportunity cost of picking up a banana is picking up a lemon – and vice versa – we cannot do both at the same time*. When we have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources, we must consider not just the cost of indulging happiness, but the opportunity cost of not tapping into meaning.
*There are some ways to pick up both a lemon and a banana at the same time (we explore that idea more above). However, for the most part bananas and lemons are often competing for our time and energy more than they are collaborating.
Seth Godin offers this,
“As parts of the world have gotten richer and richer, […] the money that’s spent (which is what business models are based on) has shifted largely to wants. One millionaire buying collectible cars spends far more than 100 families buying beans or lettuce.
Marvel spent $400,000,000 to make Avengers: Endgame. Because there was a business model in place that made it a reasonable investment choice.
What if we wanted to cure river blindness or address ineffective policing as much as we wanted to watch movies? The business model would shift and things would change–in a different direction.
I’m not sure there’s an intrinsic reason that watching a particular movie is more satisfying than solving an endemic problem. We’ve simply evolved our culture to be focused on the business of amusement instead of the journey toward better.”
The idea of shifting our wants to prosocial behavior is an interesting thought experiment and one worth exploring. However, our culture didn’t simply spring into existence as one that valued wants and entertainment, we steered that ship together, which then raised the question of why and how we got to this point, where entertainment is the cultural cornerstone.
Let’s unpack the idea of there being intrinsic reasons for why we do things. We all have likely had some experience of being motivated to do something, even if it doesn’t necessarily serve our best interest.
Clicking ‘play next’ despite needing to go to bed.
Eating another bite even though we’re full.
Spending money that we don’t have on something we don’t need.
We wanted and chose to do those things, but it’s not like we had a very good reason, so why did we do it? The answer, while nuanced, points to a clear truth that there is more to our behavior than us simply being greedy lazy gluttons.
Keep reading for A Peek Inside The Brain where we examining some of the processes that are associated with pleasure
A Peek Inside The Brain
Some consider the human brain to be a black box, meaning we cannot interpret its inner workings with certainty, only the observable stimuli (input) and behavior (output).
In many ways, this is a practical perspective: we can’t see what chemicals or electrical signals are firing without testing nor can we really control those processes, so why would we care what is going on up there? A broad understanding of what’s going on inside our noggins can help shed light on why we do some of the things we do. Take for instance the words wanting, liking, and motivated toward, which could be used synonymously in everyday language. When we tease apart these terms as they relate to the brain, we see that there are distinct processes and goings-on that help explain why we seek out pleasure, at times to our own detriment.
One neurotransmitter in particular, dopamine, has long been associated with pleasure, but it is far more complicated than simply making the good things feel good.
Our little friend dopamine has two major functions in the brain (along with many others, it works pretty hard!)
- Influencing how we learn and remember things.
- Releasing in anticipation of a pleasurable experience.
So while we might associate dopamine with pleasure, it is important to understand that it is released in the brain not just when we chew the chocolate, but when we reach for the bar, which makes it more accurate to consider dopamine as a motivation molecule, versus a pleasurable one.
Dopamine’s associated with the motivation that gets you up and moving is theorized to play an interesting role in Parkinson’s Disease, which is a motor-function disorder.
Some scientists suspect that the decrease in movement in early Parkinson’s is not a question of motor function, but a deficit in motivation at a cellular level. The reward circuits are not powering an incentive for cells to spend more energy on normal, faster movements. As a result, the muscular tissue cannot respond properly and this leads to slower movements.
So what does that have to do with pleasure? It gets at the idea that our motivation sometimes has roots far deeper than our immediate control or consciousness.
The pleasure we experience from indulging happiness begins with anticipation, so if you are deciding between one you know is pleasurable and an unknown experience, your brain will release a chemical in anticipation of the known pleasurable one. Of course, it’s just some feel-good juice in your brain. We are completely capable of saying ‘no thank you’ and moving along, but knowing about some of the unseen forces in your brain may make the choice easier.
Because dopamine comes from wanting more so than liking, we can want things that we don’t even necessarily like. Need an example or two?
- You want to watch TV. You open Netflix and there is nothing that looks appealing. You remember doing this same scroll yesterday. You don’t like Netflix anymore, but you were motivated to open it (wanted to watch) due to the pleasurable past experiences.
- You want to drink a beer. You crack open the beer and then barely touch it. You get distracted doing other things.
- You open your phone and pick an app to scroll. You are hardly surprised by there being nothing new, interesting, funny, or exciting to see.
- You stalk your ex’s socials like a miserable detective sniffing for clues they are dating someone new.
Hedonic adaptation (explained above in ‘Peeling Back Bananas’) is the process of adjusting to the pleasures of our lives and gaining less and less happiness after each iteration, i.e., we like it less. Our motivation and anticipation to pursue it, however, may not wane in the same way because liking and wanting are two different processes in our brain.
When ‘liking without wanting is heaven, and wanting without liking is hell’, what can we do about urges and behaviors we don’t fully understand or like? Is there better advice than ‘just stop’? Fortunately, yes.
The trend of ‘Dopamine Fasting’ originally created by California psychiatrist Dr. Cameron Sepah, is a bit of a misnomer. We can’t actually fast from a brain chemical, what we can do however, is limit our impulse response when we feel pulled toward something juicy, like a social media notification or buying something fun.
Rooted in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) the basic premise is that by controlling the stimulus, we can gain more autonomy over our response. The practice essentially works as follows:
- Identify a behavior we view as encumbering us in some way, like checking our phone too often, emotional eating, or shopping.
- Plan time to fast from this behavior, whether it is for an hour a day or while you’re on vacation, you commit to not engaging in this behavior.
- Plan time to feast in this behavior. The idea isn’t to give up a pleasure for good, but to change our habits around it. We are choosing with intention the times we say ‘yes’ to our pleasures, and the times we say ‘no’.
We dig deeper into a similar exercise during our Lemon & Banana Audit in the final section, Overcoming Happiness as a Hindrance.
We may not be able to peek into our brain to see how the juices in our brain change when we engage with mindfulness practices like this one, but we can see firsthand what space opens up in our lives when we put more intention into the way we seek out pleasure.
The final section, Overcoming Happiness as a Hindrance, is all about recognising what in our life is a lemon, and what is a big ol banana. By recognising our own tendencies – whether that is adapting to the things that bring us happiness, comparing ourselves to others, or reaching for pleasures without any thought – we can make better choices about what and where to spend our time and energy.