How To Be Happy Without Running The Hamster Wheel To Nowhere

The title is inspired by a quote from Peter Sage, where he describes the current trend of career planning and egoic satisfaction as a hamster wheel to nowhere.

In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal tells about a scientific study, where they took a few mice and let them get really, really hungry. They then put them in the middle of a large box which had a huge block of cheese in it. The mouse, of course, started to sprint towards it, as soon as its feet hit the ground. For the mouse, there was a hook, though. The scientist had attached electrodes to its brain. These electrodes would activate one very specific area on the press of a button.

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Right when the hungry mouse had the cheese in its sight, the researchers activated it and the mouse – stopped. It did not seem scared, not hurt and not paralyzed. It just stood there, quiet and at ease. The researchers concluded that they’ve finally discovered the pleasure center of the brain! Why else would a starving mouse ignore a huge chunk of cheese?

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The study was later repeated with human subjects. This time, the design was a little different: Instead of letting the participants get really hungry, they would just give them the button to the electrodes and let them press it themselves. The subjects started hitting the button over and over again, impulsively. When lunchtime came, the researchers had to remove the setup so that the subjects would go to eat. Later, the participants where interviewed to find out how they would explain their behavior. The answers were fascinating as all participants agreed that it was a very negative experience. Here’s how it actually felt to them: Every press of the button felt like the next time will be better. What the researchers had discovered was not the pleasure center but the reward system.

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They confused the two because they observed that none of the participants stopped their behavior. The researchers initially assumed that no one would continue with something that makes them feel miserable. Apparently, that assumption was incorrect. We actually choose to be miserable if we hope for a better future. The problem is that this system can be hijacked and we can find ourselves on a hamster wheel to nowhere, so to speak.

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If we can’t make space for happiness today, it won’t suddenly appear in the future. If we cannot be happy right now we can never be happy. If we don’t live our life’s right now, we will never live it. Imagine someone practicing for a high-stakes event with low-stakes training. They will fail, no matter how good the training might be. In a Tim Ferris Show podcast episode, Christopher Sommer recounts the story of a Russian Olympic  who was extremely well trained but fully unprepared to face the pressure of the Olympic games. She failed.

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The point is this: If you don’t develop the ability to be happy with less than what you want, then you will never be happy even after you’ve got it. Being happy is 50 % getting the things you want and 50 % being happy having them. This is not about stopping to achieve and just enjoying the mediocrity. This is about planting the seed of happiness today and not just expecting a huge tree to appear in the future.

Part of this is practicing to express yourself in every situation, no matter what you have to deal with in your life. If you are still immature in some aspects, that also needs to be expressed. This by itself will remove conflict and increase happiness.

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“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”
Aristotle

Ask yourself this in every situation, especially in the more difficult ones: How would my older, fully mature self react? And: What can I do today, to make the first step in that direction?

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