“When and then” and the hedonic treadmill

“When I get X, then I will be happy.”

That’s a piece of wisdom I heard from others older and wiser than me: beware of the “when and then”.

And of course that’s the same as Naval Ravikant’s idea:

“Desire is an agreement with yourself to be miserable until you get what you want.”

There’s another, related idea: the hedonic treadmill. Sometimes it’s called the hedonic set-point. Something really good happens. You are happier, but you then revert to a baseline happiness level that you’ve always had.

Or something bad happens–maybe even a permanent bad outcome. After some unhappiness you return to your baseline level of happiness.

You will find plenty of bullshit psychologists doing bullshit studies and playing cargo cult games with statistics around this idea. Ignore them. The Wikipedia page, at the time I am writing this, has a reference to some study finding an increase of 1.4 GHQ. Whatever the fuck that means. But it sounds scientific!

Ignore social scientists. They are modern-day astrologers, plaiting their shit. You can tell because their self-anointed job description has the word “social” in it. 🙂 Dan Sullivan is right: adding “social” as an adjective sucks all of the meaning out of the noun.

(Just like how any college major with the word “studies” in it can be initially classified as “probably useless bullshit”.)

Back from the rant. 🤪

Both concepts are correct and they are Lindy. As operating hypotheses in my experiment (sample size n = 1) these two ideas offer useful guiding principles.

  • Desire, or the “when and then”, guarantees unhappiness now, because it guarantees discomfort in exchange for the hope of a future outcome.
  • The hedonic treadmill guarantees that the future outcome will not deliver the fruits of your desire. Regression to the mean and all that.

What to do? You’re in a pickle here. Why have desires for the future? Is every striving pointless?

I don’t think so.

First, think of David Allen’s teaching in GTD, where he uses a thermostat as an analogy in your though processes. If you want your house to be permanently warmer or cooler, you change the thermostat.

Just so here. If you want a better life, change the inner world. Change your mental thermostat. Your baseline happiness level.

You can be happy with an old Accord or you can be happy with a shiny Benz. You proved that to yourself. You can be happy with $50 sneakers or $1,200 dress shoes. You proved that to yourself, too.

It’s not the externals that matter. The inside man. That’s what matters.

I think part of the problem I have here is with word “happiness”. It is a word that means everything and nothing.

Rereading Chapter 1 of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson last night brought back to life the important idea that a word does not have the same meaning to two different people. It is extremely hard — maybe impossible? — to have a meeting of two minds on the meaning of a word.

Especially a word like “happy”.

It’s worse than that. One human, at different times, will define the word “happy” in wildly different ways. One set of facts will find me declaring myself to be happy, yet the next day, when nothing external has changed, I will declare myself to be unhappy.

Naval Ravikant’s formula is useful for me.

“Happiness is peace in motion. Peace is happiness at rest.”

This substitutes two fuzzy words for one 😀 but I like it. I have a better sense of what “peace” looks like. Inner peace, that is. Especially, at the moment, through reading and digesting what the Stoics say.

But also from experience. Yesterday, running in the summer heat, I had flashes of peace. Everything’s ok. I’m at peace. It’s all good. Peace or white noise hiding brain rattles? Don’t know and don’t care. It was a good day. The brain was not a giant radar looking for things to obsess about. I just ran.

There are some things — and peace or happiness are examples — that can only be learned and known from experience. Not from debate, discussion, and study. “Not all things can be taught, but everything can be learned.” Naval Ravikant said that.

Anyway. This is a long rambling discourse and let’s wrap it up.

  • When and then. Desire. These are fatal for present tense happiness.
  • Hedonic treadmill. These are guarantees that externals will not make you permanently happier.
  • The thermostat brain. It is possible to reset the baseline mental state–for the better. I have done this.

Brains. They’re a burden. Who needs them? Haha. “Don’t use your brain to think”, Anderson used to say. “Be a zombie”, he used to say.

How to be happy? At the moment it is in remembering how brief my life is, compared to the billions of years before I was born and the billions of years that will come after I die. This gives me a license to be optimistic, encouraging, and choose virtuous action to the best of my ability.

And don’t forget the reading. The reading is always the first thing to go.