Hope and the Hedonic Hamster Wheel

This week, we’re taking a break from our ongoing Ask Mission Central series to offer an Advent-themed post as we prepare for Christmas. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox.

 

 

What was hard for you today?

 

That’s a question that I ask when I feel like I need to catch up with myself. Whenever I ask it, answers pop up quickly. If you ask yourself that question, what comes up for you today?

 

Another question: What am I thankful for from today? That question is also easy to ask, and answering it can kick off real spiritual change. More on that in a bit.

 

There’s value in asking ourselves intentional questions like these, partly because they disrupt our mind’s “auto-pilot” settings. Left to our own devices, without trying to direct our thoughts in any particular direction, we tend to focus on the negatives in our lives. Like a car that lists to one side, our negativity bias will pull us off track unless we consciously correct it. As we begin the season of Advent, I suggest a two-part correction: wonder and hope. But first, let’s look at just how bent our bias is.

 

Our Negativity Bias

We can see our negativity bias in the disparate emotional impact of good and bad things in our lives. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister says, “Most of the research shows that bad things have about two, three, or four times as much impact as good things. If you want to have a good relationship, go for at least a five-to-one ratio of good things to bad things.” That’s a high bar for a healthy relationship, but it fits with experience. How much damage even one unkind word can do!

 

Similarly, we tend to underestimate the value of gains, while feeling losses acutely. Journalist John Tierney offers an example: “Researchers did experiments where students were given tickets by a ticket broker, and if the seats were better than expected, the students didn’t express any gratitude; but they were very upset if the seats were worse.” If you get a parking ticket, you feel the pain more than you feel the happiness from an unexpected gift of the same value. Scientists call this an “asymmetrical” response; our feelings don’t line up with the reality of the good things we’re experiencing. Instead, our perception is skewed negative.


Studies have shown that this bias appears at the neural level; our brains are more active in response to negative stimuli. Even infants as young as twelve months change their behavior more markedly in response to others’ negative affect than in response to positive affect. If a baby’s mother looks afraid when the baby is about to crawl in a certain direction, it makes a bigger impact on the baby than if the mother looks happy. We internalize frowns more deeply than smiles.

 

The Hedonic Hamster Wheel

Another way we see the negativity bias is in our forgetfulness about good things. When the furnace is broken, it’s an emergency. When the furnace is working, we don’t even think about it. (What would our ancestors who braved centuries of cold winters think of that?) If we get an unexpected and hefty bill, anxiety kicks in. If we get a bonus at work, we feel great for a few days. Then we forget about it.

 

This tendency to adjust quickly to the positive things in our lives was christened the “hedonic treadmill” by social psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell. We think we’re moving ahead by obtaining good things, but emotionally we’re running in place. I find the image of a hamster wheel even more appropriate (and entertaining). When we’re chasing happiness, we’re not going anywhere!

 

One of my favorite illustrations of the hedonic treadmill is cars. The kind of car you drive has almost no influence on your overall happiness. Consider this: When you are in your car, what do you think about? Not your car! As long as it meets the basic requirements for getting you from point A to point B in safety and relative comfort, your mind will wander to anything and everything besides your vehicle. Which means, paradoxically, that the details of your vehicle are essentially immaterial to your experience of driving.


The exception is a vehicle that the driver appreciates for the experience, rather than for the function. The automotive aesthete, by paying attention to the details, may derive greater pleasure and delight from them. So, we should expect the happiest drivers to be those enjoying an experience-oriented vehicle. Like a motorcycle. And so it is: A 2020 study found that “eight in 10 (82%) motorcycle riders [say] riding makes them happy, compared to only half (55%) of motorists.” The way you engage an experience affects its effect on you.

 

Wonder Catalyzes Gratitude

A good portion of the hedonic hamster wheel comes from taking positive things for granted. We easily move from having something to feeling entitled to it. Our baseline of “normal” moves up, making truly wondrous goods feel unremarkable.

 

To counteract the effect of the hamster wheel, then, we need to move our baseline down, to recognize that we enjoy splendors that dramatically exceed “normal.” Or, more precisely, we need to see normal things in a new light, without taking them for granted simply because they are common.

 

Consider your lungs. They are about as common as it gets. But take a deep breath. At this moment, your lungs are taking in air. They’re transferring oxygen to your blood via capillaries so small that red blood cells pass through them single file. They’re taking the unusable carbon dioxide from those same blood cells, and releasing it into the atmosphere around you. Meanwhile, the freshly oxygenated blood is rushing off to nourish the vast network of cells that are constantly metabolizing to keep your body going. Your body runs this fascinating, almost whimsical, highly efficient, air-based energy factory every minute of every day and night. What a marvel.

 

Taking time to marvel is a way to step off the hamster wheel. Instead of feeling like we’re missing out, or looking to the “next thing” that might scratch that hedonic itch over and over again, it dawns on us that we are already surrounded by marvelous, normal things. Instead of taking things for granted, we feel thankful. Wonder catalyzes gratitude.

 

Hope That’s Secure

There’s ample evidence that gratitude makes us feel better. It’s a better way to do life than the hedonic hamster wheel. But this evidence raises the question: Are wonder and gratitude right? Are they telling us a true story about the universe?

 

After all, our negativity bias can conjecturally be explained in terms of our evolutionary history. If you get real scared by predators, you don’t get eaten by them as often, and so the scaredy-cats are the ancestors who survived and passed along their anxious DNA to us. The story about the universe that our resulting brain chemistry tells is “If you’re not careful, you’ll get eaten. Watch out!”

 

But the story that wonder tells us is, “You are the heir of innumerable splendors. Things will turn out well.” On what basis could we believe such a story? As we prepare for Christmas, I suggest that the story of Jesus’ coming provides a basis for believing the story that wonder tells.

 

Jesus comes as a small, vulnerable child. He comes surrounded by evil: the threat of Herod’s jealousy, the poverty of his family, the darkness of all generations. He comes unobtrusively, with angelic fanfare reserved for shepherds and most of Bethlehem oblivious. But in his coming, the life of God is breathed into a human body, a body that will carry the sins of the world to the cross and die with them. A body that will breathe again on the third day.

 

If the story of Jesus is true, then we have every reason to look to the future with hope. Not sentimental hope, but a hope that’s secure. Because the body that breathed again will come again, and make all things new. Things are not all right yet, but soon they will be. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:24-25 NIV).

 

Even more than a generic kind of gratitude, the specific security of that hope in Jesus Christ gives us the existential purchase we need to get off the hamster wheel. Instead of running ourselves ragged pursuing one thing or another that does not make us happy, we can rest easy in the knowledge that a good future is kept safe for us in God’s grace. That future comes bounding into the present every time we give thanks. When we wonder at the present gifts of God’s grace that we enjoy now, we taste the life that we will share with him forever.

 

Practice

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is my “hedonic hamster wheel”? What good things do I take for granted?
  • Am I pursuing anything right now that I think will make me happy?
  • What can I give thanks for right now?
  • What “everyday marvel” can I ponder today?
  • How can I bring the hope of Christ’s return to my mind this Advent?

 

Photo by Jeremy Noble on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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