Sustained happiness vs. hedonic blips

I took this photo of Crystal Springs reservoir (San Mateo county) with my 2017 iPhone last week. All credit goes to the landscape. Aside: can you imagine how beautiful it must have been everywhere in California before Europeans showed up?

I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about happiness lately and I keep coming across the idea of hedonic adaptation. Hedonic adaptation means that while positive experiences or events do give us a spike in happiness, we return to our baseline levels pretty quickly. Moments of hedonism don’t really add to sustained happiness.

It's clear that, as a culture, we’re pretty focussed on pleasure. We live in a state of constant hedonic blips. Checking for likes on social media—blip. A sugary snack—blip. Check the phone again—blip. And again—blip. TikTok—blip. Phone pings—blip. Email you’ve been waiting for—blip. Another snack—blip. Glass of wine—blip. We can spend a whole day moving between the phone, the computer, eating and drinking, looking for another blip without actually registering how we feel.

Sometimes we’re scared of stopping to find out what our baseline mood is. What if we become bored, and then irritable? Or what if we encounter dark thoughts and feelings that threaten to suck us into a painful spiral or trauma vortex? Our instinct is to avoid ourselves.

But our inner selves, free of distraction, are also where all the creativity, insight, love and beauty come from. And by constantly feeding our dopamine addiction—because most addictions boil down to dopamine—we’re alienating ourselves from our own souls. By neglecting to check in on our true selves, we forgo opportunities to improve our baseline happiness levels.

We can have steadier moods and more connection, creativity and love in our lives,

but to get there we have to both reduce our addiction to hedonic blips and create habits that help improve baseline happiness.

So, how do we address our addiction to hedonic blips? Slowly and steadily. When we’re inspired, we may feel super motivated to make over our lives by ditching all the hedonic crutches at once. So we decide we’re gonna exercise, cut carbs, go vegan, delete all our social media apps, cancel netflix (and all the other streaming services) and cut back on alcohol in the same week. This lasts about 12 hours and then we throw our hands up and quit because it’s really just too much and how can anyone even live this way! Basically, we’re trying to run a marathon without putting in the time.

This stuff is the hardest. We have to train. I think the key is to pick ONE thing, give it a go for a month or two and then if you’re in a good place with it, add something else. It’s walking the fine line between challenging ourselves and not being too harsh.

While there are whole industries dedicated to helping us overcome addictions and become mentally and physically healthier, a lot of the messaging really just supports the notion that we should overcome one hedonic blip so we’ll be in a better position to get some other kind of dopamine boost. For example, while weight loss programs talk a lot about being healthy, the marketing subtext is that if you lose weight you’ll be hotter and therefore get lots of attention from people. But wanting more attention is just another type of external hedonic blip that you can become addicted to. It’s the same with the idea that you should stop watching tv shows so that you can be more productive. If ‘more productive’ means ‘making more money and gaining more social status’, it’s just another dopamine substitute. The true challenge is trying to slowly wean ourselves off our addiction to dopamine spikes so that we have enough space in our minds and bodies to improve our baseline happiness.

On the other hand, if we’re swapping out scrolling social media or watching shows for an activity that is more life-giving, like creating something, spending time with a friend, being in nature, exercising or reading a book that gives us a new outlook on life, we can shift our baseline levels and sustain increased happiness.

This kind of wholesome advice can be difficult for us to accept at a cellular level. My brain is very aware that it can get a hit of dopamine by eating a cookie or checking out TikTok but it doesn’t have the same association with going for a walk. I just know, cognitively, that the last time I went for a walk I was happy that I did.

In order to up our baseline happiness we sort of have to take it on faith that reducing hedonic blips and increasing activities that are good for our bodies, minds and souls will benefit us. This is the kind of wisdom that we accept in moments of clarity (maybe after we’ve binged some show, app, substance or food), but it’s difficult to sustain that kind of understanding without some kind of habit or support.

Habits, structure and support are exactly what are needed to do the things that will make us happier in the long run. In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield describes something called 'resistance' as a force that works against us whenever we pursue ‘an act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health or integrity. Or, expressed another way, any act that derives from our higher nature instead of our lower’. We can choose to fight resistance on our own, or we can create structures and habits that help us do the job.

The great stoic philosopher, Aristotle, was all about creating habits rather than relying on ‘virtue’. He writes about happiness as coming from an attempt to live a life of excellence, suggesting that “we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

If we create the habits that help us overcome resistance to doing life-giving activities like creating and connecting with people, and try to wean ourselves off the dopamine hits (which in turn gives us more mental space for creating and connecting), I reckon we can start cultivating the happiness we’re all so intent on finding.

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