Ho-hum. Another cloudless day at the beach. Another spectacular sunrise, beautiful waterfall, towering temple. Another cascade of fragrant frangipani blooms.
How can I possibly find myself unsatisfied by it all? Downright irritable, in fact, in the midst of one of the most sought-after vacation spots in the world?
The latest learning from my Big Life Pause has been a lesson in Hedonic adaptation.
Winning the Lottery
I first learned about the brain’s wiring for pleasure adaptation through research on Lottery Winners. One year after the win big, those “lucky” fortune hunters found themselves no happier than before their new millions. Money doesn’t buy happiness; in fact, the human brain begins to expect the bountiful and require ever more bounty to feel an equal measure of happiness.
The less evolved part of our brain is primed to want more and better, for ever and ever.
The term Hedonic Treadmill is the perfect description for that primal drive to continuously better our situation. Or, conversely, our tendency to gloss over the goodness of the moment in search of something better.
Chasing the Shot
When I first dropped into the crystal clear, turquoise blue waters of Komodo National Park, I was awestruck. I spent the first 48 hours on the Liveaboard dive boat gazing off the bow to oogle jaw dropping vistas, blissfully swaying with the gentle roll of the Flores Sea. My first dive was like swimming in a huge aquarium full of fantastical marine life. So much beautiful coral! So many colorful reef fish! Sharks, turtles, even Manta Rays. It was a dream come true.
Then I noticed a not so nice thing.
All 3 of the others in my dive group had GoPro cameras and, instead of drifting along in awestruck wonder as I was, they were focused on chasing the shots. Like children in an Easter Egg hunt, they darted from one shot to the next. It was a practice of pursuit and I quickly learned to stay the heck out of the way when they were beelining for some creature.
I was saddened that these seasoned divers had become inured to the glorious experience of diving itself, the simple beauty of being weightless, soaking it all in. Where was the AWE with these people?
Who, me? Unappreciative?
Of course, my judgmental little mind first noticed the Hedonic Treadmill in operation with my dive buddies. And then it happened to me.
Two weeks later, on my very first wreck dive, I found myself thinking: “Oh. Just another large grouper. Another huge coral formation. More little angel fish. Even the parrotfish munching away on the coral where now old hat.
I wanted something more spectacular – the illusive Mantashrimp, which can see 15 color spectrums and has a shell so strong it inspired the invent of Kevlar. Or better yet, the spectacularly colored Mandarin Fish, which hides in one kind of coral and only shows in the late afternoon.
Hey, where was my simple awe?
It was a surprising revelation. I had become one of “them”, a sleepwalker in Paradise. Eight weeks of tropical wonder had acclimated my brain to a new norm and I was craving more stimulation, more beauty,
Savor the Simple
It was time to slow down and soak up the everyday. My latest practice in self-directed positive neuroplasticity has been to notice how I’ve become habituated to the glorious, to laugh at my silly little brain, and then to intentionally stop and appreciate.
To enjoy the starry sky through the roof of my open air bathroom. To watch the elegant fronds of tropical trees sway in the afternoon breeze. To feel vicarious joy in the local kids frolic in the surf. Turns out any dive site comes alive when you stop and watch a coral patch for 10 minutes.
What about YOU?
After extended travel in developing countries, I know that our lifestyle in the US is comparatively plush. We are a culture of strivers and acquirers, a herd of consumer seekers responding to a never-ending stream of commercial encouragement. There is an unspoken belief that enough is never enough.
I encourage you to take a step off the hedonic treadmill in the coming months. Turn your gaze toward the abundance of goodness already overflowing in your life. Time enough to enjoy friends and family, to rest well on a good bed, to know that you have health care and the freedom to choose what you do for work.
An Attitude of Gratitude
This morning, with my beautiful watermelon juice at hand, I’m savoring the cool breeze off the ocean, the early morning light shimmering on the sea, and the spontaneously unabashed singalong waitstaff.
I’m reminding myself that life is good. There truly is nowhere to go, nothing to do, nobody else I need to be. Intentional appreciation and trust in Universal goodness are once again grounding my mindset, and I am a happier woman for it.
How about you? Have you ever found yourself asleep in the land of bounty? Craving something … more?
Try this savoring Pause from Brother David Steindl-Rast and let me know how it goes. Becaue simple is good, and goodness truly is everywhere.