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“Quarantine Diaries,” by David Garyan (Day 28)

Quarantine Diaries – Day 28 April 11th, 2020

Trento, Italy

Hedonic Treadmill

What more to say, really? Italy has extended the lockdown until May 3rd, which means these entries will reach at least fifty or so—that’s if I stay sane, no less. There’s both much to talk about and not much, in fact. Life, at its core, really is monotonous, even before pandemics made it dangerous and exciting to go grocery shopping.

When the fridge is full, you wake up, have breakfast, go to work (in my case, you don’t), have lunch at work (in my case, at home), come home, eat again, argue with your wife (whom I don’t have), go to sleep, and repeat everything all over. Life really is miserable—anyone who says otherwise probably had something good happen to them today and dopamine highs don’t count; they’re just the body’s natural drugs. Talk to me about life a month after graduation, a month after your wedding, a month after the birth of your child, a month after that big promotion, and then we’ll see how wonderful everything really is. Maybe Roy Hawkins was already right in back 1951 when he sang “The Thrill is Gone,” which of course became a major hit for BB King in 1970, and thus everyone forgot about poor Roy—I guess Hawkins was right.

In a New York Times article, Harvard educated psychologist, Tal Ben-Shahar, said the following about big accomplishments: “The problem is that achievement doesn’t equal happiness—at least not over the long term.” Ben-Shahar calls this phenomenon “arrival fallacy,” and it has been discussed by other experts as well. Suzanne Gelb, writing for Psychology Today, talks about how her own experience of achieving something great strangely made her feel emptier than before. Gelb states how chasing merely accomplishments isn’t a reliable way to achieve lasting happiness because it’s based on external validation.

When people achieve something, they want people to recognize the work, and such recognition doesn’t last long. Winning a World Cup, for example, is an effort that takes months; receiving the medal for it, however, and celebrating the victory with a parade takes less than a day; after that, therapists say people return to baseline very quickly and in Gelb’s words, such achievements “make us feel great for a while, but ultimately they’re not filling or satisfying.” Psychologists have commented extensively on unhappy achievers—people for whom no amount of success is ever enough; they’re chasing the dopamine high, in other words.

Something similar to this phenomenon has been observed by management consultants George Parsons and Richard Pascale; they call it “Summit Syndrome.” In a 2007 Harvard Business Review article, the authors describe how this problem negatively affects over-achievers. A curve is used to illustrate how extremely goal-driven people—upon reaching the peak of accomplishment—simply lose the desire to perform at the high level that made them initially successful. Years and years of chasing the adrenaline rush associated with success causes them to burn out, in a sense, and when they attempt to resolve the situation, to put their lives back together, they enter a state of total confusion and realize that “life’s grand purpose has somehow been lost.” Ah, yes, always a good amount of depression to start the day.

Already in the late 40’s, psychologists like Viktor Frankl were starting to realize that the desire for success alone couldn’t bring happiness. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he writes: “Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself, or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” I’m starting to realize Frankl’s statement is true. I can’t wait to graduate with my third master’s, but when that day comes I know it’ll be just as unfulfilling three weeks after leaving school as the two other masters have been; they no longer make me happy and getting this one won’t bring everlasting joy either.

The reason why big accomplishments only make people content for very short periods of time is because every person has what’s called a happiness set point, better known as baseline. When big changes (whether positive or negative) occur in people’s lives, the overwhelming emotions that accompany them are indeed powerful, but psychologists have found that people return to their baseline state rather quickly, a phenomenon which is known as hedonic treadmill. Alex Lickerman comments on the phenomenon in Psychology Today: “Our level of happiness may change transiently in response to life events, but then almost always returns to its baseline level as we habituate to those events and their consequences over time.” How comforting it all really sounds: To know that somewhere out there is a cocaine-addicted attorney with a degree from Harvard whose happiness no longer derives from the fact that he has an Ivy League education and is just looking for the next dopamine high. Dave Kleinfeld from Carlito’s Way, anyone? Although I don’t know where this good lawyer got his degree.

Call them unhappy achievers; use poetic metaphors like hedonic treadmill to make your point; be a philosopher and label it arrival fallacy; give it a medical name like Summit Syndrome—I don’t care. How do you escape from all those things? The problem is recognized by many, but solutions are few.

People have been reaching for the heights ever since humanity came into existence, one might argue; whether these heights are real or metaphorical is the only distinction to be made here. Today, my brother and I decided to reach once more for the tangible limits; in the case of actual mountains, the proponents of Summit Syndrome are wrong. When you reach their peaks and look down on all the ants below, it’s easier to go down and face these inconsequential beings who believe they’re important, but in the greater sense, their lives mean nothing. I guess that’s what I’m thinking here.

To some extent, I agree with all the impersonal psychology bullshit I’ve just spewed out onto these pages. I’m rarely happy weeks after the publication of a poem, for example. In the midst of writing a piece, I can’t wait to finish it. What else but the first draft is the ultimate happiness? When it’s time to edit, I can’t wait to complete that task. When the poem is ready to publish, I promise to finally be happy when it’s found a home. When the magazine accepts my work, I’ll finally be so happy when people read it. When people have read it and congratulated me, there’s nothing more the poem can do, and it’s time to repeat the process.

I’m a drug addict addicted to the drugs of the body. I love speedballing dopamine and success so much that it’s harming my ability to develop close relationships with people—to really open up and feel vulnerable around them. I wish the friends I have could trust in my failure to be more human. I wish the girl I like in Ravenna would believe what I said, but I know that she doesn’t and that’s okay too. Maybe she knows that her name is hidden in one of my poems and maybe she doesn’t, and who really cares about that? My whole life, I’ve been an expert at not meeting people’s expectations and surpassing my own. I truly am a dopamine chaser.

Before climbing our mountain today, I took this picture of the goal we wanted to reach. We did reach it and afterwards there was nothing more to expect from nature.

I don’t know if life can ever be lived in any other way now or ever. I don’t know if the past was any different than it is now. What am I but a different section of a never-ending wall built by the newly arrived bricklayers? Every generation adds their uniqueness to the stretch, but ultimately the purpose of the wall remains the same. The things we build, thus, while very impressive in and of themselves, don’t have very redeeming purposes. All the sophisticated war-machines, for example, which are supposed to help us achieve some “final” goal—to take territory that will be lost anyways in ten, twenty, or a hundred years is an example of this “wall” to our progress. Each generation improves this machinery, but its purpose, like the wall, remains. Hence, even if we achieve our ultimate goals, what long-lasting happiness will that bring?

Neither the conquest of people nor the domination of land will bring humanity any positive results. In his poem, “My Age,” Osip Mandelstam wrote: “this age of the infant earth / Is like a baby’s tender cartilage, / And once again the cranium of life / Has been sacrificed like a lamb.” Speaking of his own generation and to some extent also about Russia, Mandelstam’s message of the earth being young of course contradicts geology, but what he really means is that the world hasn’t lost its innocence despite having become older—it hasn’t changed much since the emergence of civilization but our ability to cause it harm has increased exponentially. According to Mandelstam, we must redirect our efforts from building captivity to creating freedom:

If we read this stanza as an allusion to the Orpheus myth, humanity must, unlike Apollo’s son, have faith and not look back when rescuing our own love (which is humanity) from the grips of death. Orpheus’s struggle occurred in the underworld, but our own challenge occurs on the earth itself; we must keep the snake from biting our love and sending it into the underworld.

That’s how I feel when I read the poem and perhaps tomorrow I’ll feel differently about it when I won’t read what others have said on the subject. What’s an opinion if it’s shaped by another opinion? I no longer know and nor do I care. All I really have to offer are great views—and this time I’ll treat you with a video.

All the way from quarantined Italy: I may seem crazy now, but in a month everyone here will be no different.

Until next time.


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