Hedonic Treadmill and the Chemical Orchestra

A few days back I read a nice response by a Redditor called “ExRousseauScholar” to the question “Is the hedonic treadmill actually real?”

If you are not familar with the word “hedonic”, you may recognize it is related to hedonism – in short “hedonic” refers to the pursuit of pleasure and enjoyment.

The “Hedonic Treadmill” is the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. In other words we all have a set-point that means happy people tend to be happy and grumpy people tend to be, well, disgruntled. For example, someone I know excitedly told his therapist, “I just sold my startup for a lot of money! I’m going to be set for life!” The therapist replied, “That’s great news! I look forward to seeing you next week at our regular session time.” (**boom-tish**)

Anyway the response in the Reddit thread made the following recommendations to not losing your happiness. This reminded me of an earlier post here on “Living a good life” but the author makes it a little more “science-ey”.

  1. Don’t be high in trait neuroticism (this is the most important thing, out of the entire list);
  2. Do be high in all the other Big Five personality traits (that is, be agreeable, extraverted, conscientious, and open to experience);
  3. Find a good romantic relationship;
  4. Have good friends (quality over quantity; 3 and 4 might be better summarised as “have good relationships with people,” but 3 is pretty important in and of itself);
  5. Be healthy;
  6. Don’t be starving and poor in the absolute sense;
  7. Have a job that you actually like and matters (what a surprise, where you spend eight hours a day, five days a week makes a difference!);
  8. Have a leisure activity that you enjoy, especially one that connects you to other people (see 3 and 4).

That was a pretty great list and other people asked ExRousseauScholar to provide suggestions how to change #1 and #2.

But I feel there is a lot of significance to #8 being connected to other people (#3 and #4) – particularly if your leisure activities have “meaning” as we discussed in the “Living Deliberately” –> “Connect with a greater purpose” section of  our “Good Life” post . Things are always better with a shared purpose and a few good mates.

ExRousseauScholar’s advice tended towards supplements and drugs. This is fine, but a very modern antidote that is by definition a product of a capitalist culture – and ironically subject to the same mechanisms as the Reddit topic of “Hedonic Treadmill” (chasing the dragon). 

I’m always amazed that opinions miss the point that psychology and psychiatric disciplines have been around for about 150 years but Homo Sapiens has existed for 300,000 years ago and somehow coped without Freud or even Joseph Goldstein.

So our (us Home Sapiens) experience of the Hedonic Treadmill pre-dates the labelling provided by the psychologists by 299,850 years, but that doesn’t make it any less “real”.

Is it just psychology or can it include other things like our body chemistry?

Anyone that drinks coffee knows that chemistry can affect happiness and A LOT of that chemistry can also make you edgy.

BUT – What if the key to lasting happiness wasn’t in external pursuits or chemicals, but in understanding the internal orchestra of chemicals conducting our moods?

So in a similar ironic way I get all atomistic and look a the chemicals that tweak our experience of happiness. For a few years I have had a piece of paper above my desk that summarises the role of these chemicals. I tried to find the source of where I got it but found there are hundreds exactly like it – take a look at this search!

happiness chemicals: Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, Endorphins
From my wall. Source unknown.

Based on our modern understanding of the chemicals that operate inside our body – here is a bit of science and some suggestions.

Meet the chemical quartet: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins.

These neurotransmitters** act like musical notes, playing a symphony within our brains.

Dopamine drives our desire and ambition, oxytocin fuels love and connection, serotonin governs mood and well-being, and endorphins offer natural pain relief and euphoria. The dance between these chemicals determines whether we’re sprinting on the hedonic treadmill or basking in a state of genuine contentment.

So, how do we optimize this internal orchestra? Here are some practices to harmonize your chemical symphony:

Dopamine Dance:

  • Small Wins, Big Joys: Celebrate the little victories! Completing a task, learning a new skill, or even savoring a delicious meal triggers dopamine, building momentum for bigger goals.
  • Novelty Nibbles: Introduce controlled novelty into your routine. Take a new route to work, try a different recipe, or explore a hidden corner of your city. Dopamine craves the unexpected, but remember, too much novelty can be overwhelming.

Oxytocin Embrace:

  • Connect and Belong: Oxytocin thrives on social interaction. Spend time with loved ones, volunteer in your community, or join a club. Strong bonds and meaningful connections are your oxytocin fuel.
  • Acts of Kindness: Random acts of kindness, from a simple smile to a helping hand, trigger oxytocin in both the giver and receiver. Spread the love and watch your happiness bloom.

Serotonin Serenade:

  • Sunlight Soaks: Bask in the morning sun to boost serotonin production. Even a short walk outside can make a difference.
  • Move Your Body: Exercise is a potent serotonin trigger. Find an activity you enjoy, whether it’s dancing, swimming, or brisk walking. Your body and mind will thank you.

Endorphin Euphoria:

  • Challenge Yourself: Step outside your comfort zone and embrace healthy challenges. Learning a new skill, mastering a difficult task, or even overcoming a small fear releases endorphins, leaving you feeling empowered and joyful.
  • Laughter is the Best Medicine: Find humor in everyday life, watch a funny movie, or share a good laugh with friends. Laughter is a powerful endorphin booster, and it’s contagious!

Being mindful (by simple aware observation, not reading about it in blog posts or books) of how external substances or interactions can affect your internal state (and chemicals).

Hedonic hacking might be useful or pleasurable in our day-to-day living but actual experiencing the truth that some habits  keep me on a treadmill might be replaced by a “Living Deliberately” change of behaviour. Some of the suggested activities above might be tools to substitute for a treadmill habit. Knowing and feeling and nurturing the orchestra (or at least a quartet!) that are at work internally (and also in my friends, colleagues and people I find challenging) may be create a symphony of lasting contentment rather than hedonic hits.

May all sentient beings be freed from suffering.

** Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that enable communication between nerve cells (neurons). Specifically, neurotransmitters are chemicals that are released from the axon terminal of one neuron and bind to and activate receptors on another neuron.