Compulsive Personality & Depression Part 3: The Compulsive Hedonic Treadmill

Forty-eight hours ago, after a weekend of frantic formatting, I sent my editor the first draft of a book I’ve been working on for almost four years (more on that later). Has finishing it made me happier? Or has this been just one more of those carrots tantalizingly dangled in front of us as we pursue them on a treadmill of depression?

This is the third in a short series of posts on depression and the compulsive personality. People who are driven or compulsive function in a number of ways that make us especially vulnerable to depression.

Compulsives may live on their own particular version of the Hedonic Treadmill. We imagine we’ll be happier by completing, perfecting, producing and fixing and we drive like crazy to get there. But even when we do succeed in reaching any of these goals, happiness does not shine on us eternally. In fact, we tend to plunge into darkness soon after.

Many people become depressed when they feel that despite achievements they have not been able to find sustainable happiness.

And, at least as importantly, crossing tasks off a list to ward off depression can prevent us from dealing with deeper issues that need our attention. Like running from a ghost, just because depression doesn’t hold you fully in its grips doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you.

The Hedonic Treadmill

The phrase Hedonic Treadmill refers to the tendency we all have to revert to a set level of happiness or unhappiness after events that we expected to make us happier or less happy. Our overall mood doesn’t change much over time because we tend to return to pretty much the same level of happiness a few months after even major positive or negative events or life changes–unless we bring conscious intention to our own personal treadmill, which we’ll get to later.

In a classic study researcher Philip Brickman and his colleagues found that people who won the lottery were not any happier three months after winning than they were before, and people who became paraplegic were about as happy after losing their abilities as they had been before.

Been There Done That

Brickman believed that we adapt to our circumstances. When we experience something really great or horrifically bad, things that feel merely pretty good or merely sort of bad hardly register after that. So, after you win a million dollars, finding a $20 on the street doesn’t do much for you, whereas before it might have made your day.

The human psyche responds more to change than to static circumstances. So what seems great at first becomes hum-drum after a while. So, according to this line of thinking, become happier is doomed to failure.

It turns out that while there is some truth to this, it’s not as simple, dire or unalterable as things looked at first. According to research published in The American Psychologist set points can change under some conditions.

Two Types of Happiness

Richard Davidson, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin, has conducted research which indicates that there are two sorts of happiness: a short-lived form of happiness that we experience upon completing a goal (compulsives love crossing things off a list), and a longer-lasting happiness that we can experience as we move toward a goal. These two sorts of happiness involve different parts of the brain and different hormones.

The Compulsive Version of the Hedonic Treadmill

Compulsives imagine that the 1st sort of happiness, experienced in completing tasks, getting things organized, fixing problems and perfecting things, will make us feel happier. We may focus so intently on completion that we miss the possibility of the 2nd sort of happiness, the more lasting kind that we get from being engaged in a project and savoring the challenge.

Unhealthy compulsives tend to rush from one goal to the other and never experience lasting happiness.

Ironically, the process of engaging in any of these activities can make us happier; but the completion of them only makes us happy for a short time.

Compulsives can be really good at delaying gratification. We tend to think that once we get something done, we’ll feel better, so we tolerate stress and endure pain to get there.

Certainly there are times when we need to grit our teeth and power through with determination, knowing that it needs to be done and that we’ll grow through it.

But to constantly prioritize the completion of goals keeps us on the compulsive Hedonic Treadmill. And that can bring on depression or keep us from dealing with an underlying depression.

So, at the risk of repeating what you’ve probably heard already but have completely ignored because you thought it was soft, trite and sentimental: if you can enjoy your projects as you work on them, you are more likely to be happy than if you keep trying to get them done.

Evolution’s short-lived reward for getting stuff done

As I wrote in my last post, we’re programmed to feel pleasure for things that made us more likely to pass on our genes in the environment that we evolved in. Sex is usually good for that. And sugar used to be good for that because it wasn’t ubiquitous and gave us energy. So we still find them pleasurable whether they’re still really helpful now or not.

There are some variations among us, depending on what genes we’ve gotten, but people who are driven usually find pleasure in organizing, planning, correcting, perfecting, and fixing. These have helped us to survive and adapt. We get a subtle hit of pleasurable hormones in the left side of the brain as we’re doing it. This is a sustainable pleasure.

But then, once we check off the box or cross tasks off our list, we experience a brief period of pleasure originating on the right side of the brain caused by a release of different hormones. It can’t last for long, otherwise we wouldn’t get anything else done.

But since it doesn’t last for long, you scan your world for what else needs to be organized, planned, corrected, perfected or fixed. Otherwise you might feel that depression you’ve been trying to avoid.

Achieving to Avoid Depression

Writers, for instance, typically experience some relief at completing an article or book, but depression often comes quickly after. So we start another piece to stave off depression.

Any of you who have read William Styron’s Darkness Visible may remember how depressed he became after finishing a book.

Despite this inevitable let down, if we need to have evidence of our worth, we may come to rely on completion rather than process and slide from the healthy end of the compulsive spectrum to the unhealthy end of the spectrum. In doing so we exchange intrinsic motivation for extrinsic motivation; we work because it looks good rather than feeling good. Depression ensues.

Yet, this can still be addictive.

Addiction to achievement

Some people deal with insecurity by consuming luxury items to prove to others that they have status, thinking that will make them happy. But it doesn’t.

Compulsives try to deal with insecurity and prove their status by achieving success rather than collecting material goods. But it doesn’t solve the underlying problem of insecurity.

Rather than developing a sense of basic self-acceptance, we seek more achievement and an addicting cycle of short-lived relief ensues. As with addiction, we need more and more achievement to simply to avoid the painful feelings of withdrawal and depression.

Stepping Off The Treadmill By Savoring Process

To step off the Hedonic Treadmill we need to become aware of what we usually think will make us happy and question it.

If you’re driven, compulsive or type A you probably won’t be able to stop fixing and planning and producing completely, but you can choose whether you invest consciously in savoring them or just getting them over with.

While the satisfaction of major achievements may not take us off the Hedonic Treadmill, the consistent practice of incremental change does seem to help us get off of it and feel a more enduring, albeit measured, happiness. And, it prevents depression.

So, right now:

  • Try to notice if you lean forward toward the future in your body
  • Try to notice what the motivation underneath that urge is
  • Substitute future completion for appreciation of the present: what can you savor about the projects that you’re engaged in now?

Turning in that book draft to my editor did make me happy–for a little while. But the more sustainable happiness comes with the writing itself. So here I am putting words together again, trying to be with it rather than trying to get it finished. And that makes me happy.

Originally published at thehealthycompulsive.com.

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Psychotherapist, Jungian analyst, and author of "I'm Working On It In Therapy: How To Get The Most Out Of Psychotherapy," & the Healthy Compulsive Project Blog

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Gary Trosclair, DMA, LCSW

Gary Trosclair, DMA, LCSW

Psychotherapist, Jungian analyst, and author of "I'm Working On It In Therapy: How To Get The Most Out Of Psychotherapy," & the Healthy Compulsive Project Blog

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