Use gratitude to pause the "hedonic treadmill"
Updated: Jul 25
"Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers" (Garth Brooks, Unanswered Prayers)
Psychologist Oliver James wrote the book “Affluenza” (now well over 10 years old) and he spoke of the “hedonic treadmill” which, over said 10 years simply seems to have gained momentum! This concept is where we keep seeking more and more short term pleasure, but seem unable to stop and appreciate what we have.
One of the reasons for this is when we purchase something, we see it in comparison to other things like it, when we get it home, we see it as “assimilated” into our life. Research has found that even lottery winners will return to a similar state of happiness around a year after their win as they were before; and worse still in the 1940s when we didn’t have as many people graduating, there wasn’t as much wealth , and even lifespan was shorter – happiness was rated at 7.4. Now, when we have seemingly “everything” we rate on average 7.2!
This focus on “more” keeps us in a mindset of lack or having less!
Why do we fear "lack"?
When we live in a society with others (and this is evident in the animal kingdom), we tend to understand our “place” in the pack through acknowledging ourselves in comparison to others – with the goal being access to resources. In humans, we are fighting less over a perceived scarcity of food and water, but (especially in the social media world), a need for acknowledgment and validation. Further to which, building self-esteem has focused on appreciating the self…but often in comparison to others (eg. I didn’t win…but at least I didn’t come last).
The social media problem
As such, the psychology can point back to an “evolutionary hangover”…the weakest in the pack loses out – and in today’s “Insta-filtered” world, it can sometimes feel like everywhere you look, you’re like a “before” photo. Social media is someone’s highlights reel, but when that’s all we see (and we see ourselves 24/7 ie. “warts n all”) – it is all too easy to think, I’m not living up to that in looks/lifestyle/fitness…the list is endless. Even the mundane with a clever angle, and filter can look like a magazine cover. The problem with this, is that we begin to think that we are somehow not enough because see that others are getting validation though “likes” and positive comments. We forget that a photo is just a photo, and not only that, but likely “set up” because the aim is to impress with a visual on a visual platform. That is NOT what life is (unless that is your life – if you see what I mean!!)
There is a problematic concept of “success”
The world doesn’t yet value wellbeing. There is little focus on building inner values in education – because it is “more important” to win, to have power, to succeed within a defined framework. It takes a brave leader to say – what if we teach that the ultimate source of what you are seeking lies NOT in fame and fortune – but simply from within…and we can all learn the tools to achieve that? Of course, strive for meaningful accomplishment BUT if the trappings of temporal power (titles, certificates, money) were to disappear – one simply needs to remember that YOU can build them up again because who you are far outweighs anything you might have.
Therefore, again, if you don’t have the title, the car, the office, the “perfect” life…you may even see yourself as less than “ordinary”.
Short term pleasure is easier than long term fulfilment
Further, the brain has evolved to keep us safe – and thus in the first instance is cautious. It is also stimulated by short term pleasure, and in 21 Century living where this can come at the touch of a button, we really need to “retrain” our brains to look for fulfilment rather than the short term hit. The problem is, long term fulfilment often takes more work, it’s harder, and our brain doesn’t like leaving the comfort zone because it’s “risky”.
This is why we need what the Japanese call “kaizen” – the art of constant development. We can “short circuit” the brain’s hedonistic tendencies by making very simple (rather than massive) changes to our lives.
So should we settle for being "ordinary"?
Ordinary is in part defined as having “no distinct features” – and certainly in my own teenage years, that’s probably what I wanted most of all – just to blend in. It is strange how things have changed.
But the problem comes with how we define “ordinary” to ourselves…if we equate it with “dull” or “boring”...or as I did "settling", that is when we return to the feelings of lack. If we really take the time to think about it, it would be improbable, or at least very unpleasant to live life every single minute in the way that we may believe others are. We know ourselves that even if we have had the most wonderful evening, we “need a few days” to recover. Life is about balance.
Another of my favourite lyrics comes from Chainsmoker & Coldplay: I'm not looking for somebody with some superhuman gifts Some superhero Some fairytale bliss Just something I can turn to Somebody I can kiss
Ordinary may refer to the “1-dimension” that is what we do but it doesn’t need to refer to who we are. Virtues such as kindness, generosity, temperance, perseverance, are essential not just to finding our own contentment but enhancing that of those around us. These must not be undervalued.
When you think about what someone might reflect on when they look at what you brought to their lives, they are likely to speak of your virtues, your traits, how you made them feel – and barely mention your external achievements.
Similarly, when you think about what you love about your friends – how likely are you to mention “their amazing life!”? Again, it will be simple pleasures – friendship, sense of humour, feeling comfortable, thoughtful (not their house and car).
Can a constant striving damage our wellbeing?
When the constant need to strive forward, or "get more" results in us forgetting what we have, this can be problematic.
Our brain is our most valuable tool – and yet 21st century living – pushing us to acquire more and more - seems intent on making it malfunction. Most things arrive at the touch of a button – fast food, shopping, even potential relationships. But add to that the stress of working to pay for all of the above), competition and feelings of lack as we pursue the hedonistic treadmill in the chase for momentary pleasure – and it is no wonder our mental, emotional and physical health is suffering.
If we’re no longer taught to seek lifelong fulfilment – but rather “success” set out by a defined set of criterion – namely what is “popular” at the moment, we have set ourselves up to experience mental ILL health, and what’s worse, what little we have left of our time and energy is them spent on making it better.
We need to stop and start appreciating what we have – and we might find we already have everything we need.
Try this: "Desperation" for something can affect us in the same way as the stress response - it can make us very "blinkered" to our reality...and even what we really need (which is healthier than this focus on wanting something we don't yet have). So, in those moments when you are thinking "I want this", pause and consider if there is a moment of gratitude in not getting it just yet."
- will getting "this" take me off may actual desired path?
- is there a better way I can utilise this when I do get it...and thus this moment allows me time to think how better I might use it?
I personally find, then I take the time to do this I realise either that I've had a lucky escape that it didn't happen because I got so caught up with the "wanting" that I hadn't realised my life was no longer heading that way; OR I begin to recognise that how I was going to engage with whatever it is when I got it, was not the most effective and I had time to make some helpful recalibrations.
How can we learn to press pause? (Practical Tools)
1. One of my favourite affirmations is the Serenity Prayer
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference”
…and I repeat that so it is part of my daily mantra.
2. Gratitude is a wonderful practice to appreciate what we have (and it has the extra benefits of generating oxytocin one of our feel good hormones), but I would even take this further and even go around your house touching objects and saying a mental “thank you”. We are very blessed if we have running water, food and a roof over our heads.
...and actively reflect with gratitude on the times in your past when you didn't get what you thought you wanted, and it turned out a little later you had a lucky escape!!
3. Actively appreciate the little wins as much as the big ones. “Anumotanaboon” which means “rejoice in your merits” in Thai is a word the monks use every time they see someone doing something kind, compassionate and good. This not only primes the mind to look for the positive, but also the recognise it – especially in things which may otherwise be overlooked.
4. Engage in some self compassion! NOT SELF ESTEEM – that is often comparison based.
a. Often we feel “guilt” because we are looking to others to validate our sense of self worth. The more we can build our sense of value, the more we are likely to say yes when we mean it, and do a good job.
b. Engage in little things that make you feel good – eg. a hobby (eg. reading…and remember it doesn’t mean you have to read a whole book, rather maybe a chapter or an article)
c. Remind yourself of your own value – keep a post it collage of positive words and descriptions of your strengths
d. Spend time with friends who value you for who you are not what you do.
5. Try this affirmation "Who I am is more valuable than what I have”…and this helps ground me when I feel the twinge of “should I be doing…?”...because I then reflect on how the person I want to be would behave ...which leads me to reflect on my values as well as propelling me to the next point.
6. Another lovely tip for turning envy to positivity is whenever I see something on social media which would make me feel inferior (And if this happens to you, remember, it’s not usually because the original poster has meant to – how do they know you will be reading it!?) but often because of my insecurity, I tell myself “I’m grateful for seeing their success…” and then springboard off that belief into doing something that helps me improve the areas I want to work on.
7. Write up a list of the people you feel judgmental of, BUT each time you see them, look at the accomplishments that make you feel insecure/”ordinary”*
*Note it is important to know the difference between their behaviour eg. nastiness making you feel insecure, or accomplishments.
Write down the things that you observe as making them so accomplished and either:
1. Try to practice those behaviours and see which ones work for you
2. ASK them how they developed those traits…often when we approach someone with love and curiosity (rather than dismissal or disdain) they actually want to help us (and if they don’t, then maybe you didn’t want to be so like them after all!)
8. Finally, when you are feeling “ordinary”, ask yourself – what would I do if I didn’t have the thought that "ordinary" was a problem? And then do it.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For coaching tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt