Designing the Mind

HABITUATION HACKING

How to Get Off the Hedonic Treadmill

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Habituation can be defined as “the diminished effectiveness of a stimulus in eliciting a response, following repeated exposure to the stimulus.” In other words, it’s what happens when we get what we want, but it just doesn’t satisfy us like we expect it to.

It’s the process responsible for a drug addict’s continual need to increase their dose to get the same high. It’s what happens when we take things for granted. It’s the hedonic treadmill.

And it’s what Dr. Loretta Breuning, author of Habits of a Happy Brain attributes to the natural patterns of our neurochemicals, saying, “When Plan A works, alas, the happy chemicals don’t last. To get more, you have to do more. That is how a brain keeps prodding a body to do what it takes to keep its DNA alive.”

Today, I want to share both the bad news, and the good news of habituation. Why our brains set us up for disappointment, and how we can hack our mind’s reward systems for a lifetime of deep satisfaction.

Humans tend to anticipate more in the way of enduring satisfaction from the attainment of goals than will in fact transpire. This illusion, and the resulting mind-set of perpetual aspiration, makes sense as a product of natural selection, but it’s not exactly a recipe for lifelong happiness.

– Robert Wright

Psychitects, we hear a lot about the hedonic treadmill – the internal regulator that keeps us constantly striving for satisfaction through our goals, achievements, and outcomes, without ever reaching it. But today I want to tell you how you can get off the hedonic treadmill, and onto the “hedonic escalator.” The way of living your life that will actual cause your satisfaction to sustain, and even increase. First, the bad news.

The Bad News

In Habits of a Happy Brain, Breuning covers a variety of “disappointments” that our happy chemicals leave us with.

Dopamine is triggered by rewards that meet our needs. But it’s designed to leave us unsatisfied and craving quickly after we satisfy these needs. She points out a study that demonstrates this phenomenon:

The fleetingness of dopamine was illuminated by a landmark monkey study. The animals were trained to do a task and get rewarded with spinach. After a few days, they were rewarded with squirts of juice instead of spinach. This was a bigger reward than they expected and the monkeys’ dopamine soared. But as the experimenters continued rewarding with juice, the monkeys’ dopamine declined to nothing in a few days. Their brains stopped reacting to the sweet, juicy reward. In human terms, they took it for granted. Dopamine evolved to store new information about rewards. When there’s no new information, there’s no need for dopamine.

This experiment has a dramatic finale. The experimenters switched back to spinach, and the monkeys reacted with fits of rage. They screamed and threw the spinach back at the researchers. The monkeys had learned to expect juice. It no longer made them happy, but losing it made them mad.

She also points out that endorphins work in much the same way. Drugs like heroin stimulate this chemical, as does exercise. And endorphins explain why some people find pleasure in self-harm, but have to resort to more and more dangerous levels of damage to bring the same relief.

But she also says chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin, drugs we don’t often associate with addiction, are subject to the same type of habituation.

Our infatuation with our romantic partners (oxytocin) and the pride of a promotion (serotonin) wear off and leave us craving bigger achievements just to reach the same levels.

Everyone’s happy chemicals droop, which is why everyone looks for ways to stimulate more. That’s how our brain is designed to work. Even if you discovered a new planet, the happy-chemical surge would not last. You could look at your planet every day, but you would not feel the full joy of discovering it in every moment. You would want that feeling again, though. You’d try to fulfill that need with the pathways you have, which might motivate you to look for another planet.

Some people assume that the key to happiness is to go after one chemical over another (dopamine bad, serotonin good). But Dr. Breuning demonstrates that habituation occurs for all of our chemicals.

It’s not so much that we should go after certain neurotransmitter highs over others. It’s that we should find the paths that provide the best, long-term combinations of chemicals.

Chemical Patterns

Different actions stimulate different chemicals in our brains. But I want to propose that beyond this fact, different overall life strategies produce different chemical combinations and patterns.

In fact, what we call “wisdom” in many ways boils down to insight into our own neurochemical patterns. Whether or not we realize it, when we make a wise decision, we’re essentially saying, “I’ve learned the chemical patterns of this type of decision, and option B beats option A in the long run.”

The ancient philosophers were well aware of this idea, even if they couldn’t articulate it on a neuroscience level. We could understand the first couple of noble truths of Buddhism as essentially saying: Normal life-strategies do not deliver satisfying patterns of neurochemicals.

It’s equally true of Stoicism. To quote Ward Farnsworth, author of The Practicing Stoic:

The Stoic’s first observation about desire is that getting what we want tends not to produce the satisfaction that we imagined. It makes us want more. New desires appear when other ones are spent; our minds seem to have an appetite for desire itself, and for the illusion that fulfilling it will bring us to an endpoint. The end never arrives.

If he lived today, Seneca might be assuring us that dopamine and serotonin habituation make up the root of our problems.

I’ve put together a few diagrams to demonstrate the chemical patterns I’m talking about here. They’re speculative, and more intended to demonstrate the point than show the exact chemical patterns observed.

But I think this way of thinking can unlock a new way to navigate our lives and ensure our own long-term wellbeing.

Hedonism

If you adopt a hedonistic lifestyle, you may center your goals around obtaining as much sense pleasure as possible. Eat delicious food, have good sex, and do fun drugs – it doesn’t sound all that bad, does it?

This kind of lifestyle will deliver many quick jolts of dopamine, which is best thought of as craving, motivation, or compulsion. Taking the craved action will deliver a rush of pleasure (likely endogenous opioids like endorphins) along with a bit more dopamine to help cement the habit.

But as habituation occurs, less and less pleasure will be delivered each time, habits will be formed, and stress hormone cortisol will increase between hits. Most concerningly, serotonin will decrease as esteem is neglected over time.

Materialism

If you adopt a lifestyle centered around material gain and external praise, dopamine will continue to motivate you toward your attachments, but they will center around social status.

Your new job, your new car, your new house – they will all trigger pride and serotonin. But along with craving and pleasure, your periodic pulses of serotonin will be volatile and quickly fade after they spike. And cortisol will be ever-present as you push to sustain this stressful lifestyle.

If I had to choose between the two, I would go with this one. But I’m glad I don’t have to choose.

So what is the alternative, and what kind of pattern does it produce?

Sisyphean Satisfaction

The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

So our neurotransmitters seem to suggest an inescapable treadmill of life. A continuous search for fleeting chemical highs.

But many of us don’t experience our lives this way. Even if it technically is how our brains work, we often feel like we can attain a stable level of well-being for long periods of time. Why is this?

Albert Camus is famous for his philosophy of absurdism, a response to the schools of nihilism and existentialism. His philosophy said, “Sure, life is ultimately meaningless and ridiculous, but suicidal despair seems like an overreaction.”

We long for happiness and meaning, despite residing in a world and a brain that weren’t designed to give it to us. But this was no cause for despair. Better yet, he argued that the futility of our quest for meaning could be a source of happiness itself.

He demonstrated this through the Greek mythological figure of Sisyphus, who was condemned by Zeus to roll a giant stone up a hill for eternity, only to watch it roll back down and perpetually begin again. Initially, it sounds like torture.

But that wasn’t how Camus saw it. Everything we humans do, from eating, to loving, to writing, to volunteering – it’s all pretty equivalent to rolling a boulder up a hill. It is all done for temporary highs that will inevitably “roll back down.”

But some of us are able to develop an appreciation for the art of living nonetheless. We can learn to love the process itself, rather than getting attached to the illusory objects of our desires.

And in the act of building this appreciation, we can actually stabilize the fleeting highs of pleasure and reward.

After accepting his fate, Sisyphus would gain the ability to cultivate a love for his role as a roller. Over time, the seemingly mundane act of rolling the stone up the hill would develop interesting nuances and challenges that would make it enjoyable. That is, of course, if Sisyphus were willing to stop feeling sorry for himself and open up to the possibility.

He would gain an appreciation for the process of rolling. He would develop new ways to move the rock, and the act of rolling would become a work of art in itself.

Camus says that “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” We don’t need the “final” happiness that we’re wired to believe in. Happiness is an active and ongoing process.

Sisyphus could learn to love the craft and develop appreciation and pride in his virtue of skillful rock rolling. And this is the key to our mindset of lasting satisfaction.

The Good News

The hedonistic and materialistic lifestyles I listed earlier are quite different, and those who pursue them may strike us as total opposites. But those who prioritize external pleasure and those who prioritize external gain have one thing in common: external.

Your neurochemistry responds to your goals. The aims and expectations you set for yourself will determine when your happy chemicals are released and when they aren’t.

When you choose to set goals and play a game that centers around your own development, your mental growth, and your personal virtues, your neurochemistry responds differently.

The waves stabilize and grow. The volatile fluctuations in mood give way to stability and gradual improvement. The erratic nature of external rewards, financial gain, and social status can cease to have such a strong effect on us.

What would this look like on our chemical graph? Perhaps something like this:

What you see above represents a life of enduring and increasing pride (serotonin), constant motivation (dopamine), regular rewards (endorphins), and low stress (cortisol). This is what eudaimonia might look like in neurochemical terms.

But how do we achieve it? What kind of life-strategy can evade habituation and produce a pattern of consistent satisfaction?

Psychitecture and Habituation-Hacking

To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.

– Michel de Montaigne

What we usually call “happiness” relies on the masterful modulation of neurochemicals. Though we may never unlock a permanent and unconditional flow of happy chemicals, we can use a kind of habituation-hacking to make it so the flow is relatively stable and increases slowly over time.

The most powerful way to do this is to spend your life, first and foremost, setting and pursuing psychitectural goals. When we immerse ourselves in the art of becoming, we can become virtually immune to many forms of natural dissatisfaction we were designed to feel.

There are some valuable principles that can guide us in this endeavor. And I have reason to think that most people who feel bored and perpetually unsatisfied in life are basically failing to prioritize one or more of these principles:

  1. Virtue-goals

Your goals should always be informed by your ideal self. They should always flow from your values, not from your desires for gratification or approval.

When you focus on what you have, you set your goals, and chemical rewards, to things that can be easily lost. You will be on a high when the stock market is up, but you will quickly habituate to your wealth, and you can’t count on continual economic growth to deliver forever.

But when you focus on who you are, you get to gradually build a masterpiece that will be with you as long as you live.

Don’t get me wrong, it is always possible to fall short of your virtue aims and experience disappointment. But this is where the next principle comes in.

  1. The Goldilocks Principle

The Goldilocks principle refers to setting goals that are just right – not too easy and not too difficult. It’s an art in itself, but you can get better at finding the sweet spot by paying careful attention and working to improve.

Breuning says:

Good feelings flow when the level of challenge you face is “just right.” If a basketball hoop is too low, you get no pleasure from scoring points. If it’s too high, you have no reason to try. Effort is fun when you expect a reward for your effort but it’s not certain. You can adjust the hoops in your life and make things fun.

She goes on to say:

For forty-five days, experiment with lowering the bar in areas where you have set yourself impossible goals and raising the bar in places where you’ve set it so low that you feel no reward. If you feel you have no choice between frozen dinners and gourmet banquets, define a moderate cooking goal and start your forty-five days now. If you feel you have no choice between sitting on the couch and walking the red carpet, try going out in a middle-of-the-road way, and then try another way.

  1. Diversification

Staking your whole identity to being good at one thing is like putting all your money into the next big cryptocurrency altcoin. Your mood will be volatile, with some high highs, but a lot of low lows.

Invest in virtues like index funds – with the ideal mix of risk and reward. Make them as diverse as realistically possible to avoid putting all your eggs in one basket.

If you pride yourself on your creativity at work, be sure not to let it crowd out all your interpersonal or philosophical virtues. Otherwise, that serotonin will be in for a market crash when an actual market crash leads to layoffs (we are really mixing metaphors here).

  1. Incremental Consistency

You can set your psychitectural goals so that they break up progress into baby steps. Instead of staking your growth on massive, all-or-nothing achievements, take small, incremental steps toward your ideal self every single day.

Be consistent rather than making off-and-on efforts. Don’t go into a new year attempting to exercise seven days a week, only to burn out three weeks later. Start with one day a week and aim for consistency. Step it up to two days once you’ve sustainably mastered one.

It’s great to have big aims to use as a North star, but be sure to place lots of smaller and regular milestones along the way to keep the dopamine and serotonin flowing.

  1. Variety

Another key to the continual release of happy chemicals is found in variety. Though similar to diversification, the purpose of variety is not just to prevent catastrophic failure. It’s to keep you interested.

Like it or not, your happy chemicals easily adapt and get less responsive to the same stimuli. To work with them, you have to switch things up. Once you make a big step in cultivating one virtue, switch to another one.

The brain triggers joy when it encounters any new way to meet its needs. New food. New love. New places. New techniques. After a while, the new thing doesn’t measure up. “It’s not the way I remember it.” You may wish you could trade it in for another new thing. But when you understand your brain, you realize the disappointment comes from you rather than the thing itself.

– Loretta Breuning, Habits of a Happy Brain

If I had finished my first book, only to dive straight into writing DTM Volume II, I can pretty much guarantee I would be going through a crisis of boredom right around now and would struggle to complete it. Just ask George R. R. Martin.

Instead, I shifted gears to building a community platform, an array of programs, and a new book that I was dying to write. And it is entirely possible to fill a lifetime with new experiences and growth challenges. In fact, I could really use a couple more lifetimes for this.

This shifting strategy doesn’t have to result in wishy-washy behavior. You can still make commitments and set big missions as long as they are broad enough to enable a diverse pool of projects.

A Happy Malfunction

In the Sisyphus myth, if Zeus had looked in and seen that Sisyphus was actually enjoying his torturous fate, he probably would have been infuriated. He was trying to torture him, but he ended up giving him a gift.

In many ways evolution is our Zeus. No, evolution wasn’t trying to torture us. It simply condemned us to a life of perpetual dissatisfaction and craving. But it ended up giving us a gift.

We can use the equipment it endowed us with to hack our own happiness. We can unlock enduring happiness by becoming the skillful engineers of our own happy chemicals.

What’s a strategy that you’ve learned to improve the chemical patterns of your life?

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