Treadmills & Asymmetries

“May the road rise up to meet you, and may the wind always be at our back. And may you appreciate the wind when its at your back, and when its not, deal with it a little less resentfully.”

– Stephen J. Dubner

This week’s post was inspired by a Freakonomics podcast I recently heard, ironically titled “Why is My Life So Hard?”


Why is it so hard to not succumb and conform to the ethos of a place, a culture, a stereotype? For the past few years, my life has been transitioning from stimulating, chaotic, and uncertain to stable, calculated, and comfortable. Through this change, its been a conscious effort of mine to retain cognizance of both lifestyles, but as I advance in my life and career and assimilate to the paradigm of a locale, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to maintain any alternative perspectives. In the past year, I’ve earned more money and advanced more professionally than I had in my first 27 years. I am gainfully employed at a good company in a great town. Not long ago, that was the entirety of my aspirations. However, in just a couple years, I find myself thinking far too much now about the things I want, rather than appreciating the things I have. I solely compare myself to the connections and colleagues that I interact with on a weekly basis. I am aware of how unhealthy that is, but its extraordinarily difficult to avoid.

Not surprisingly, I’m not the first person to feel this way. Psychologists call it the hedonic treadmill. When we humans experience major positive or negative life events, we have the tendency to quickly return to a relatively mild, stable level of happiness. This hedonic treadmill may literally be a life saver after some tragic occurrence. But over the progression of life and career, I find it both disconcerting and freeing that I have likely already reached similar levels of happiness as Elon Musk and Ryan Gosling.

From Wikipedia: “According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.”  Its interesting. I remember myself living in Kathmandu at the beginning of 2015 with electricity for only 12-18 hours per day, without central heating or air conditioning, without a shower to bathe in, and appreciating every hour of every day. Living as frugally as possible off of borrowed money, I was there for that singular experience, only vaguely imagining the ways the skills that I developed in Nepal would transfer to the following years and professions.

Conversely, working at an Agile software firm, the entire software development process is focused on increasing team productivity, team velocity and measurable output. The entire sales and marketing organization focuses or selling to more and larger clients than last year, last quarter. But as the hedonic treadmill suggests, this new achievement quickly morphs into the standard and then is quickly insufficient. As a for-profit, publicly traded business, the primary goal is to optimize return on investment. There is no such thing as good enough.

There is another psychological phenomenon known as the headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry. This theory describes how humans invariably characterize the issues that are in direct conflict with their own desires or believes (headwinds) as being more difficult, more meaningful than similar issues faced by people with opposing opinions. However, when an issue does go just as we had hoped (tailwinds), we attribute less importance to that because we consider it as the way it should have always been. A case study exemplifying this can be observed every four years with the presidential elections. The headwinds/tailwinds asymmetry, when compounded by the hedonic treadmill contributes enormously to all the anxiety, unhappiness, and discontent that the most advanced nations in the world are infamous for.

So is there an antidote? Is there a way to maintain perspective? No easy one I’m afraid, but I think the first step is simply becoming aware of these treadmills and asymmetries that taunt us mere humans. Before you can deal with a problem, you first have to recognize it. This forced awareness will then pull us out of the immediately relevant and current issues, remind us that things aren’t so bad after all, and help us be grateful for whatever progress we have made.

The punchline here is that gratitude is good for us. We sleep better. We go to the doctor less often. We maintain better relationships. I’ve used a long, unusual, winding prose to get to this point. We all need to have goals; otherwise we’d never do anything of our own accord. But to acknowledge a thankfulness for the myriad circumstances that have allowed us to reach wherever we are now does not imply not desiring more. It only helps us appreciate how far we have come. So today, I’m going to start small. In remembrance of a past life, I’ll be grateful that I have plumbing that functions exactly as it should, that my electricity is on for all the hours in a day, and that I’m able to take warm showers.

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