Get off the treadmill treadmill

by phil on Sunday Feb 13, 2011 2:41 PM

Here is a definition of the "hedonic treadmill":

The tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of major goals. According to the hedonic treadmill, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.
But there is another treadmill that I have a problem with. It's the "treadmill treadmill." People with this affliction are perpetually cycling through treadmills of various kinds. They make New Years Resolutions every year, and they don't stick. They're always trying some new drug, some new program, some new yoga routine, and then they put it away. They are essentially the grist for the self-improvement industry, that relies on their perpetual churn of new products and programs.

If you want to lose weight, you have to do more than some 8 week program. You have to lose weight for the rest of your life. You have to become a new person for whom weight loss is a daily habit. It saddens me to see these program-tourists, because they take what could otherwise be a potentially life-transforming process, don't go all the way with it, and then discard it, only to pick up another one.

Take for example, exercise. The latest crazes are CrossFit and P90X. One problem I have with them is they're transparently designed to be unsustainable. The mascot for CrossFit is pukie, a clown who vomits after doing CrossFit. P90X is just for 90 days. What happens on Day 91? Do you just stop and revert? You can't buy P90X a second time, can you?

These programs offer salvation through temporary asceticism. Salvation through purge.

But the problem with them isn't the programs themselves. In of itself, the principle of CrossFit, of having a multi-dimensional concept of fitness, is good. The problem is the adherents are tourists. Every self-improvement program, from meditation, therapy, exercise, and anti-depressants, has a kernel of something very powerful. They have the ability to change you so much so as to make you unrecognizable to those around you.

The program isn't the problem. It's the meta-program. Here are my suggestions:

You need to filter.

I went to Whole Foods with my friend, trying to pick up some choline supplements, and we spoke with a nutritionist, who then led us down a rabbit hole of all sorts of other herbal remedies, such as rosemary, rodeal, and bacopa. We were getting excited, picking up books and cradling pill bottles, until we had to snap out of it. I envisioned us trying a smattering of products, giving $100 to the herbal remedies industry, and coming out of it no wiser, healthier, and with no new lifelong habits.

You have to survey the land of options. Studying a chart like this is key:

You need to distill the program to its essence.

60% of the contents of most programs are extraneous. For example, you don't need a whole book on the Atkins diet to understand how it works. You just need to know its relationship to ketosis and the glycemic index. Identify what it is exactly that's supposed to make the program work, focus on it, and then remove the program.

You need to tweak the program until fits into your life.

The allure of these programs is that they will shake up our habits and patterns of being. But self-transformation doesn't mean to go 180 degrees from status quo to the new you. Most of your old habits will remain in tact as you move forward. This is crucial. Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her survey of studies on happiness, even identifies it as the actual secret of happiness:

Yet fit is absolutely critical. So much so that I'll go out on a limb here and say that if there's any "secret" to becoming happier, the secret is in establishing which happiness strategies suit you best.
Take that in for a second. After all her years of studying positive psychology, her conclusion is that the happiest people are the ones who do the most creative shopping for happiness programs that blend most naturally with their lives.

You need to clarify your attitude about the program.

Was there something about you that made you not do the program in the first place? Why don't you exercise? Is it because you don't believe that exercise is a good use of time? Maybe exercise is a waste of time. I'm almost at the point where I only think exercise is important for the overweight and the elderly. I see a lot of young, good-looking people jogging after work, and I wonder, if their time wouldn't be better spent with their kids or reading a book. Who knows. You have to delve into your life philosophies. Because if you ultimately don't believe in the purpose of the program you're on, then no amount of bootcamp or habit-starting will make it stick.


This is all on my mind because I'm embarking on a meditation program. I read a study showing that just 8 weeks of daily meditation is enough to show significant improvements to your brain. I can do 8 weeks, that's not a problem. The question is, can I do it for 8 years?


Randall said on February 27, 2011 11:04 AM:

every year indeed...treadmills
You are incorrect, however about CrossFit. First, it's been around long enough to not be a fad. It is a life time fitness (note that I did not write "exercise")program that is infinitely scalable for both age and ability. Read more about it. Perhaps the little essay "Fitness in 100 Words" on the CrossFit Web site is a good place to start. I have been using it for training since 2005. Physical and mental changes have been profound and positive. It is not unlike the mindfulness meditation that you have found to be helpful--except that one perspires a lot more while training. As far as pukie the clown goes, well, a sense of humor isn't such a bad thing.

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