Health and Wellness

The Hedonic Treadmill and Weight Loss

Sublime. Decadent. Luxurious. Sinful. What do these words have in common? They always show up when describing food. For people like me, this is an issue. Food has always been a primary source of pleasure; on some levels, this probably applies to most people. Perhaps simply a result of evolution. For whatever reason, I obtained either a genetic or learned disposition for overconsumption. Not only do I seek foods that rate high on the bold-flavor scale, they are usually loaded with fats, sugar, starches, and salt. When eating something delicious, there is a rush of dopamine. A surge of pleasure that peaks halfway through the eating experience, tapers off quickly after I’ve finished, and leaves me feeling the need to rush back for seconds. This spells trouble. This tendency of mine led to massive weight gain and all the ill effects that come with it. One simple concept that helped me hack and reversed this trend was an understanding of human psychology, specifically, a concept called the Hedonic Treadmill.

To begin, hedonism is defined as “the doctrine that pleasure or happiness is the highest good.” That’s the dictionary definition. The Hedonic Treadmill concept was first articulated by a couple psychologists in the 1970’s. They called it Hedonic Adaptation. The idea is that we are essentially designed to be unhappy. We have a baseline for happiness which is different from person to person. Some people are generally happy by nature and others are more prone to dissatisfaction. I am generally more prone to dissatisfaction. No matter your set point, environmental factors can move your emotions in a positive or negative direction. This will lead you into behaviors that seek happiness and avoid pain, always landing back at the baseline with the passage of time.

Happiness is short lived to keep us coming back to the activities that perpetuate life: seeking food, relationships, social acceptance, you name it. The aversion to negative experience motivates us to stay away from things that may harm us. Imagine, if you will, that you could eat food one time, and that satisfaction would stay with you. You would have no desire to eat, and your chances of dying, in a world where resources are scarce, increase dramatically. If you weren’t constantly chasing the desire to satisfy your hunger in ancient times, you would likely miss out on the rare opportunities to feed. No feeding means death. Death means no procreation. No procreation means you don’t pass on those genetic tendencies. Simple Darwinian evolution.

One of the most illustrative examples of the Hedonic Treadmill is the feeling you had when you were a child getting a new toy. The anticipation and achievement phases of that process are ecstatic, but then the novelty wears off, and you’re on to the next exciting toy. This process animates nearly every aspect of our lives: getting the promotion and raise you want only to find the next enticing opportunity; getting that new car, house, boat or ATV and inevitably wanting the upgrade; binge watching the latest Netflix series that has just been uploaded then sinking into despair when it’s done and searching for another one; seeking gains at the gym only to find another set of muscles that could be bulkier or better defined; chasing a love interest only to have the fire die and the eye wander. I could go on all day! In each of these situations, the satisfaction is short lived, and you’re on to the next conquest.

When food is one of your central pillars of life happiness, you can begin to see why it becomes a huge problem. You anticipate food. You get super excited just thinking about it; even the run to the fast food restaurant is exciting. It’s basically the equivalent of the “thrill of the chase” that hunters experience. You order, often far more than you are going to need or want. You get your hands on your delectable prey. The first few bites are exactly what you had envisioned, better even! As you eat, the novelty wears off. You begin to feel a little sick. A bit nasty. You put it down once you can’t stand another bite. The problem is that you ordered way too much, and your brain desperately wants to achieve that feeling again. Once the queasiness passes, you hammer down again, until it’s finished. This process quickly spirals out of control and turns into a negative-feedback loop.

As you gain weight your prospects for engaging in other pleasurable activities decreases. Social interaction becomes stressful and something you would rather avoid. Exercise sucks worse and worse the heavier you get. Alcohol and drugs can provide a bit of variety, but they only reinforce the negative cycle. One day you wake up to the realities of this cycle and wonder how the hell you got there! Shame, guilt, self-loathing, embarrassment, loneliness and a whole host of other negative emotions take hold. What’s the number one avenue of relief? The one thing that has the potential to, not only return you to baseline happiness, but potentially to soaring bliss? Food, of course!

As you may see, the Hedonic treadmill operates in two directions. If you are having negative experiences, you automatically seek the opposite. Exercise is not something that you are going to do because it is uncomfortable and embarrassing at best and excruciatingly painful at worst. There is a societal stigma that comes with obesity that makes many common pleasurable activities, similarly, uncomfortable or painful.

The trick here is how you use the hedonic treadmill (unfortunately there is no way off it, barring death). Everyone knows what happens when you misuse a treadmill. Inevitably you wind up falling down and violently rubbing some flesh off. Not pretty. When used properly, however, it is a tool, a powerful one at that. It was a tool that our bodies developed to help us survive in a harsh environment. Now we must learn how to adapt it to a lifestyle that is considerably less demanding and harsh. This frees you from some of the common pitfalls that violently shift the Hedonic Treadmill from full throttle reverse to full throttle forward, comically, in perpetuity.

I found that I could use the treadmill to my advantage with subtle shifts in my thinking. I simply began to diversify pleasure sources, selectively picking the ones that would bring me the best outcomes. It was essentially a balancing act where I sought to maximize pleasure, minimizing ill effects, and maximizing positive ones. To date, I have lost over 200 pounds.

Over the course of several articles, I am going to attempt to illustrate some of my opinions and epiphanies on the subject of weight loss and striving toward happiness and health.


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