Sunny was a classmate from school. He had two passions- travelling and vehicles. He gazed at cars and sleek bicycles. He trekked to the local parks and boarded buses to attend science exhibitions in schools miles way, and I always declined his invitations. He had two pet grouses, a principal source of dissatisfaction in his life- too many responsibilities and too little money. He was being brought up by a single mother and had a baby sister. He was the complaining sort. When his mother gave him a second hand bicycle, he was thrilled for a day. Then he told me bitterly that due to his mother’s financial constraints he had to put up with an old bicycle, which in his opinion, belonged to the pre-independence era. He could tell by the faded sticker on the back, which faintly resembled the British flag.
“Even Raju, the carpenter’s son, has a brand new BSA SLR.”
Sunny was good at studies. He took his responsibilities very seriously. And he worked very hard. He was my batch mate during MBBS. State funded scholarship made him exempt from tuition fee. His boarding was free in the college hostel. I congratulated him on this fact. Most of his problems seemed to be getting over.
“What about my clothes? Do you know how ridiculously expensive the books are in Medicine? I have to have a bike now. I don’t know how I will pull on for five years” He retorted.
When he passed commendably after five years, he was a very bitter man. He had to start work immediately. His pay was very good, but all his contemporaries were trying to join specialist residencies. He was expected to support his sister’s education, and see that she was married off decently.
“What an unfair world!” He lamented.
Twenty years after our date of joining Medical School, we had a reunion. Sunny had a successful practice, and was quite rich. He also had an MD in general medicine to his credit. He had travelled to all the important places in India. He came in a year-old Honda city. And he had a worried look.
“My son says he wants to join Medicine. It will cost crores! I wanted to go to a European tour last year, but couldn’t due to money constraints. I wonder when my money problems will be over”
He told me in all seriousness that the BMW he had already ordered will have to be on a bank loan as he was very short of money. He was thinking of going to UAE to earn some more.
“I really don’t want to leave, but what choice do I have?” He looked totally helpless. And unhappy.
Each pleasurable experience, good thing got, and received achievements have the ability to create upward spikes in our happiness levels. When many such things accumulate and are not offset by bad things happening, our happiness baseline will rise. It is simple mathematics, right? Now we have the magic formula. Just seek out and saturate our lives with external good things, and we become happier and happier. In fact, that is what most of us try to do.
BUT-Our happiness levels also depend on our memories of things past, and the anticipation of things to come.
Anticipation of things to come is called ‘expectations’. Expectations depend on our memory of past experiences. In fact, the past teaches us what to expect of the present.
The American Psychologist Harry Helson was the first to realise its importance. He said that each of us have an adaptation level, a baseline, that represents what we expect. I expect a nice meal at lunch time and I get it. I feel neither happy nor unhappy. Suppose there is a very poor person who can afford to eat only dinner. If, one day he gets to eat my nice lunch, he is very happy. He gets a ‘hap hit’ because he did not expect it.
One day I can’t eat my lunch and has to go hungry. My mood goes down a little.
The poor man who gets only dinner won a lottery and now gets three sumptuous meals a day. I am told that now he becomes sad, frustrated and shouts at the cook if his favourite chicken curry is not there with his lunch.
A series of pleasant experiences will produce happiness but will also raise our expectation level. So it becomes increasingly difficult for us to be happy. It is impossible for our experiences to exceed our expectations consistently till eternity. Now do we understand that sentence we studied in high school economics class- ‘human wants are unlimited’? We are sort of built like that. That is what is happening to people who slowly improve their lot and status in life. They slowly increase their expectations to match their attainments. And their happiness levels are stuck at the same level. It is like running on a treadmill. You are running like mad but are not getting anywhere. This is called ‘the hedonic treadmill’.
It makes sense. In fact, many spiritual leaders and philosophers have realised it. Buddha did. He said that desire is the cause of misery. Many of us may say that we knew it at a subconscious level.
But studies have shown that most people believe that a 25 percent increase in their salary will have a sustained effect on their happiness. The same studies have demonstrated that it wears off after a short period when they have hiked their needs to adapt to their new level of earning. Their belief was wrong. In fact surveys have been done in lottery winners who have won really big sums of money that showed similar results.
Why did nature bestow such a curse on us?
I know many paraplegics who come for treatment of pressure sores. They are paralysed from the waist down, usually due to spinal cord injury. We would expect them to be miserable. But most of them who had the injury many years before are smiling and happy. Many do useful work sitting at home. Crafts, paintings, computer work- they do it, earn well and supplement the family income. A study done among paraplegics and quadriplegics who have been disabled for twenty years shows only marginal decrease in their level of happiness. Patients with adequate social and family support were just as happy as other people. They have downgraded their expectations. They anticipate less.
The treadmill prevents us from becoming euphoric, but also protects us from wallowing in misery.
Why is the treadmill important? The knowledge that it exists, sometimes provides an instant answer to the question that we ask ourselves sometimes- why am I running so hard?