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The “Hedonic Treadmill” is a term coined in 1971, by two psychologists named Brickman and Campbell, who espoused the theory that a person’s level of happiness remains at a set point throughout their lifetime, despite achievements and setbacks. They posited that as a person makes more money through a job, or even a windfall such as a lottery, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness.

This certainly reflects our consumeristic culture which finds us in pursuit of buying even more goods in the pursuit of happiness.  This whole covetous concept jolts my memory back to the late George Carlin and his routine about stuff:

“A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. You can see that when you’re taking off in an airplane. You look down, you see everybody’s got a little pile of stuff. All the little piles of stuff. And when you leave your house, you gotta lock it up. Wouldn’t want somebody to come by and take some of your stuff. They always take the good stuff. They never bother with that crap you’re saving. All they want is the shiny stuff. That’s what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get…more stuff!”

But what about the hedonic treadmill when you are running ahead and grief hits you between the eyeballs?  How do you find your way back to your set point of happiness after your husband dies?  How do you even think about being happy in the midst of grief?  Is happiness adaptable after a catastrophic loss?  Is happiness adjustable after such a tragedy?  And can you even define or measure happiness?  We accept that we can measure depression, but can we measure or define happiness?

If we think of happiness as a state of “well-being,” we know that death robs us of all that was well, and all that was being!  Tragic loss makes us grieve for the happiness we clearly didn’t treasure enough, and it makes us despondent that we might never find joy again.  Theorists can preach to a widow about a set point for happiness, but when you are in the throes of grief, happiness does not seem like something that will ever return.  Set, point, match, gone!   The thought of returning to what was a life of happiness is unfathomable, and the hedonic treadmill is in dispute for any griever who simply must think of life as a slow journey, one step at a time, with no set point or goal other than something that is deemed livable.  In grief we need to get off any treadmill and assess our lives, bit by bit, until we can feel better about ourselves.  We have to find our inner beings again and regrow into a new and hopefully substantial person that we worship and adore.

 Tools to Recover Happiness in Grief:

  • Self-compassion is a key implement in the goal towards finding oneself again after loss. This task must be done incrementally, with slow and steady kindness and forgiveness to oneself.
  • Writing a letter each day to one’s loved one is another way to help oneself. I will always have Peter in my heart and telling him about my life each day helps me to move forward.
  • Cherishing the here and now. Savoring even a small moment of joy, be it a salted- caramel ice cream cone or a smile from a baby, can be goose-bump worthy.  In grief finding appreciation for the littlest joys in life is no easy task but done in pintsize steps, it can be achieved.  Valuing a good and kind friend is a great start.
  • Another tool is generosity, both emotional and physical. I found that helping others helped me to find myself again.  I found that opening my heart and furnishing a voice to other widows restored my soul.  Giving away your loved one’s possessions to a worthy cause is another start.  You are channeling your love for him and your love together in one donation.  I found that getting off the hedonic treadmill and finding peace and love by altruism proved to be my gateway to salvation.

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