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The Analogy of Dogs Chasing Cars (on a Hedonic Treadmill)

I confess: I stole this question from a podcast. But they only spent a minute on the topic. I think it deserves at least a thousand words.

Remember the old cartoon scene where the dog chases a car down the street? I can’t think of a specific example, but it was pretty common. Writers in the ’80s apparently thought that was funny.

My dogs chase the mail truck along the fence and bark hysterically. I don’t think the neighbors find any humor in this. But I digress.

The question is: What if the dog actually catches the car? What then?

We spend a lot of our time chasing cars. A “car” in this case is anything we think will bring us happiness:

  • A big promotion: We think the rest of our life will be easy after we get that big raise. We’ll invest all the extra income and retire at 50.
  • Selling our company for $100 million: We’ll have more cash than we could ever spend and more free time than we know what to do with.
  • Buying a new car: Like, an actual car.

But, after we achieve our goal, do we find happiness? Or is it just short-term pleasure?

Brain Chemicals and Stuff

Sometimes when we catch a car, we realize an unfortunate truth: It comes with diminishing marginal returns. (Yes, that’s an ECON reference. And you’re welcome.) The reason is because most of the things we pursue only bring short-term pleasure, rather than long-term happiness.

Once we achieve a goal or receive a reward, we get a rush of dopamine to our brains. But, this “rush” is not our normal state, and eventually, it levels off. Time passes, and we regress back to something closer to our original state of mind. So, we need another hit of dopamine. Only this time, our “baseline normal” is a little higher, so the next rush isn’t quite as exciting.

Picture the chocolate chunk cookies from Jimmy John’s. Because they’re delicious — and huge. When I eat one, I think I could die happy. Sometimes, I think I could die even happier if I ate a second. Or a third. But I’ve done this, and I promise it’s not true. That second cookie doesn’t bring as much joy as the first. In fact, it only brings pain. (If you’re cringing right now, I’m sorry for the visual.)

The same analogy applies to a big raise at work. It’s exciting at first. We imagine the great things we’re going to do with all the extra money. Then, instead of investing it or stashing it under our mattress, we buy a boat. And then a new truck to haul the boat. And a number of other things a 24-year old probably shouldn’t waste money on. Hypothetically. And a few monthly payments later we wonder where that “happy” feeling went because now we need another raise.

Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill.

The premise is that, as we achieve new levels of happiness, our expectations and desires recalibrate. We establish a new baseline normal. And since it’s a little higher than it used to be, we need a bigger car to chase — something to excite us again. So we jump right back on the treadmill.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Achieving the goals we set for ourselves is one of the best feelings in life. And if we’re doing something we love and enjoy, the achievements and rewards are secondary. But for me, something was a little off with the cycle I was in.

After the short-term high from achievement wore off, there was always something else. There was the next promotion or the next raise. If that took too long, then there was the next company. And then another. And another.

I realized it was like running on the same treadmill for 40 years. And that sounded exhausting.

Dog, meet car.

Food for thought:

What would we do if we caught the ultimate car? What if we worked 100-hour weeks for twenty years, then sold our company for $100 million? How would we spend our time after that?

I would spend more with my family and friends. I’d make it a point to read and write every day. I would work on creative projects and ideas that interest me. And I’d help other people with their projects. I would definitely continue growing, because it would be easy to become complacent.

I wish I could say I did this exercise before I quit my job. That I was some sort of “visionary,” and that it helped with my decision. But that’s not true. At the time, I wasn’t sure of the details. I didn’t exactly know how to explain what I wanted to do. I just knew I had to get off the hamster wheel.

As it turns out, the question helped me really understand what I’m doing now. I spend more time with my family. I help people with their projects — as a consultant. I write — and people pay me for it. And I work on creative projects that will eventually (hopefully) become businesses. If I can do these things now, why wait until I catch a hundred million dollar car?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but this thought was going through my head for the past few years. It wasn’t that I hated what I was doing, it was that it prevented me from doing the things I enjoy. I was spending 50% of my life chasing promotions and raises, so I could hopefully retire in another 30 years. Then — when I’m 70 years old — I could get around to doing the things I love.

Something’s wrong with that.

What do we really want?

Chasing short-term goals leads to short-term pleasure. It’s an addictive cycle. The question is: What do we really want? What is our ultimate goal?

We may need to ask ourselves “why?” many times to find the answer. Here’s how I found mine:

I need a new job. Why? So I can get a big raise. Why? So I can save more money. Why? So I can retire earlier than 70. Why? So I can spend more time with my family. And write. And travel. Why can’t you do that now? Because I work too much and don’t have time.

My ultimate goal isn’t money — it’s autonomy. I want the independence and freedom to spend my time how I want.

For some people, their ultimate goal is a relationship. Others are working toward a C-level position at a Fortune 500 company. And some dedicate all their spare time to a new startup idea. It’s different for everyone, and it changes depending on the phase of life we’re in. There is no right or wrong.

But, whatever our goal is, we should think about what we would do if we were to reach it. What would we do next? Would we do the same thing we’re doing now? And even more importantly: Is what we’re doing right now helping us reach our ultimate goal? Or are we putting it off for later?

It’s hard to catch a car if we’re running on a treadmill.

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