Infinite Ascent.

by CJ Quineson

chasing dragons

are things getting better?

september 2017. my earliest written record of complaining about the hedonic treadmill is an old blog post i made two days after my seventeenth birthday. i didn’t feel like i had good friends through elementary or middle school, and when that changed in high school i started grappling with a crisis of faith and a shitty home life. i dreamed of how much better things would get, once i turned eighteen and ran away from home and started living alone.

but seventeen-year-old me was pessimistic. sure, things would get better after you run away. but you’d find another reason to be depressed. and he was right. things were better after i ran away. and then i became sad again, because i was bored, or because i felt lonely, or because i felt life was meaningless. and i complain about the hedonic treadmill for a few months, and then i stopped doing that for a while.

the barometer of my emotions had always been my writing. less so the content, more so the quantity. i wrote a lot when i was sad, but i also wrote a lot when i was happy. during my gap year i’d write a blog post about everything. every time i went drinking with friends or every time i went somewhere new or every time i met someone cool. when i went to promys i wrote a post nearly every day about all the wonderful things that were going on.

three years later and it’s february 2020, the beginning of my second semester. my first semester at mit was mixed; high highs and low lows. either way, lots to write about, right? but only a few months later, i worried about how i was already running out of things to write about. and that it’d only get worse after i graduated, when i have a full-time job and everything’s the same day-in and day-out and nothing is new.

three years later and it’s october 2023. i’m three months into my first job and it’s already a slog.

the first few times i tried weed i felt nothing, and then the third or fourth time it all clicked, and time slowed and the music i listened to stretched for what seemed like hours, and i felt electric tingling through my body. and i don’t think i’ve felt anything like that from weed ever since. chasing the dragon is the metaphor for trying to re-experience that first high, sometimes by trying higher and higher doses.

but you can’t, because that’s not how drugs work, because tolerance. and in the weed example, i start getting headaches when the doses are too high.

sometimes i think about whether you can develop tolerance for being happy about how your life is going. i mean, that’s what hedonic treadmill or lifestyle creep is about. and it’s not that i’m consciously trying to “up my dose” of happiness. it’s that my life becomes better over time, as i move away from things that cause me pain, as i get more freedom to choose what makes me happier, as i get more money to spend from getting a good job or getting promoted at work, the more “objectively better” my life is getting.

i’ve tried to fight it. in the past, i’ve set up gratitude habits, some of which continue til now. i’m conscious about how i use my discretionary income, but not so conscious that it makes spending hard. (experiences over things, spending on others.) it’s not clear to me whether any of this helps, and it’s not like i want to stop these habits to check. it’s the same question of whether the antidepressants i’m taking work; like sure i get less depressed these days and don’t feel as suicidal, but is it the drugs or is it something else or is there another pit on the road ahead?

sometimes i wonder if the direction isn’t “i am successful, and yet i am still unsatisfied with how my life is”, but “i am unsatisfied with how my life is, which is why i am successful.”