Mo' Money, Same Amount o' Problems: The Hedonic Treadmill
Hate to break it to ya retail therapy patients out there (me), but what you're doing isn't cuttin' it in the realm of permanent contentment. Shocker there—you mean my 5,000 nearly-identical skater skirts aren't ever-catapulting me toward some ethereal, dazzling enlightenment?! What about the 200 pairs of nearly-identical black booties? No? Not the chosen path to salvation?
If that doesn't knock you off your consumerist rocker, perhaps here's something that will: for exactly zillions and zillions of years, psychologists and philosophers have spoken of a proposed phenomenon known as the hedonic treadmill; proven by extensive observation and research, dictates that human beings, no matter the circumstances or temporary shifts in mood/surroundings/financial status/etc., always eventually level out at the same steady rate of happiness. This is not to say that a death in the family or job promotion or someone randomly head-butting you in the street won't affect your mind, but rather that over time your mind will settle into regularity after the initial peak or valley has a moment to flatten. Great news for you serial head-butters out there! Unless your goal is complete and total ruin, in which case, suck it.
This phenomenon, and the brain's failure to perpetually maintain those peaks, is not unlike a drug addict's failure to return to that initial high, and has the same tendency to propel people into a constant, often damaging drive towards recapturing the once-visited bliss. Thus, gamblers, compulsive online shoppers, and binge eaters alike all fall victim on a daily basis to a system of internal chemistry that ardently convinces them of an ability to elevate their lives while at the same time severing all stairwells and exit routes. Basically, the hedonic treadmill is your ex-boyfriend, who somehow manages to convince you you're special/ coated in glitter clouds and sext awkwardly-lit dick pics to your best friends in one fell swoop. It's an asshole. But damn is it sexy sometimes. This concept, I'm sure, is not entirely new to you, even if the fancy title seems to be.
The positive side of this theory is that for those of you who find yourself generally happy, nothing is bound to take that away from you. Tragedy and hardship and fucked-up Starbucks orders hit all of us, but your body literally has got your back (ha). However, for those of you who find yourself forever haunted by exit signs and elevator doors, those of you who pick up hobbies like seashells, but drop friends like busted glass. For those of you who try every single day but never seem to find yourself fluid enough, or awake enough, or involved enough. Who congratulate yourselves on just showering or just showing up to class, in spite of a peculiar and overwhelming gravity in your gut carved out of combustion and failing synapses. For every single friend or person I have ever known to teeter on the sharpened hull of suicide, I am sorry that your brain has done this. I am sorry for the mess that science has made. The spilled sadness of your blood.
What may be new (or perhaps forgotten) to you, is that cycles were made to be broken. And we are not entirely powerless when it comes to our mental health/day-to-day satisfaction with the world around us. This theory describes a general tendency, not a singular effort.
Beyond surmounting a support system and always, always telling someone when you are not feeling okay, there are a number of methods for you to chemically rebalance your brain (that are not necessarily medication).
1. Take a break from drinking/ Drink a little less.
I know this seems more impossible than Beyonce (just like... as a general concept. Like, whoa... Beyonce exists?), but alcohol is often one of the most common denominators in many 20-somethings' lives that soothes their problems momentarily while drastically amplifying their depression and anxiety over time. According to this fancy lil' source, “By jacking up dopamine levels in your brain, alcohol tricks you into thinking that it’s actually making you feel great (or maybe just better, if you are drinking to get over something emotionally difficult). The effect is that you keep drinking to get more dopamine release, but at the same time you’re altering other brain chemicals that are enhancing feelings of depression.” Given that millennials are drinking more wine than any other generation, it can be supremely beneficial to give your neurons a pause for a cause. This doesn't mean stop going out with friends, just learn to laugh at weird booty dancing and awkward pickup lines sans booze until your mind clears up from partying-induced fog.
2. Eat less sugar.
This one may be the toughest to admit for some of you (... and me), but sugar has long been correlated with misfiring signals in the brain. Sugar causes the inflammation of cells. Inflammation disrupts the brain's normal messaging and metabolic systems, and thus leads to severe imbalances. Sugar also drains us of B vitamins that would otherwise sustain our oh-so-chipper moods. Listen, I'm not saying bathe in aspartame or organic, free-range, preservative-free, sustainable, eco-friendly, antibiotic-free, gluten-free, wheat-free, america-free, dairy-free water. BUT, if you are noticing a problem in your mood, pay attention to your habit, and maybe go easy on the sugar packets.
Exercise equals endorphins. Endorphins equal happy happy joy joy. You don't have to suddenly take up protein shakes and gym selfies, grunt, or hock loogies onto the sidewalk in order to welcome exercise into your life. You could try walking one stop further to the subway or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. You could go out dancing more often and shake it with a Shaun T booty force. Or you could physically pummel the television while Shaun T is screechin' at you. Pummeling is good. Pummeling is working out. Right?
4. Sleep more!
I know the next 500 episodes of Scandal demand your steadfast and immediate attention, but try pacing yourself so you're not drained, over-caffeinated, and telling every customer at your workplace to “have a dice nay” the next morning (again, me). According to this real nice study with real nice credentials and blah blah blah, “people with insomnia... were 9.82 and 17.35 times as likely to have clinically significant depression and anxiety, respectively." Science, bitch! Now get some shut eye.
5. Talk to your family about their health conditions.
You'd be surprised what's hiding up their genetic sleeves. And while knowledge of your predecessors won't necessarily halt your own body's chemistry before it goes awry, the very ability to identify depression or anxiety or any misstep in your synapses for what it is and where it came from gives the power back to you. You will be able to move away from the “why am I so fucked in the head” and the “I'll never stop feeling this way” and the “no one understands at all” into a realm more informed by just exactly how many people understand. Never have I felt so in control as the moment I realized I shared each and every health struggle with at least one member of my family.
None of this is revolutionary (except for my citation techniques--with those I shall conquer this world as far as the eye can see!)
But this is to say, you are not alone. Sadness is as completely personal as you need it to be, and as completely universal as you need it to be. You are not powerless. Sadness can be chemical. It can be formulaic. It can be a whole lot of things, but it can also be temporary.
Feature photo: Farhad sh/ VIA Flickr.