On Mindfulness

How to Get off the Hedonic Treadmill Without Getting Cancer

If you died tomorrow, could you say that your life was worthwhile?

What am I doing with my life?

Is this all?

Why am I here?

You and I, we have a purpose. EVERYTHING has purpose. This entire universe is a well coordinated orchestra. Every instrument, every canon, every melodic composition of its vastness is directed harmonically.

It’s a self-sustained system of cause and effect, risk and reward, trial and error, yin and yang.

What’s our role in it?

The quest — the desire — to understand, is mysteriously engrained in our DNA. From the moment we see the first ray of light, we ask questions.

What is this? Why is it doing that? How does it do it? Where does it come from?

The thirst for knowledge in our early years is so tangible. We know that in order to grow, we must ask questions and learn how to navigate the world. It’s an innate quest. It’s evolution.

Then, something peculiar happens along the way for many of us: the questions seize.

The twinkle in our eyes, the desire in our hearts – to understand the world around us – vanishes in the everyday schlepp of it all.

We stop asking questions.

The Hedonic Treadmill

When I was first diagnosed with cancer at 21, I had every reason to put my life on hold and start ask questions again.

Why me?

Is my job here done?

Is this it?

Am I ready to leave this planet?

It was only later, after many years of reflection, introspection, and self-inquiry, that I saw how much pressure I had put on myself to get ahead in life. My biggest ambition at 18 was to be at management level by the time I’m 25. I worked tirelessly to get there.

Six months before cancer, I was offered a position as the Program Director at one of the hottest new ventures that the city was buzzing about. I remember the excitement of exceeding my goal ahead of time. “I GOT THE JOB! I’M GOING TO BE A FUCKING DIRECTOR AT 21! I DID IT!”

I was on top of the world.

Shortly after, a nervous breakdown ensued.

I tried to keep going, keep pushing. Too stubborn to admit that I was exhausted, that my body had enough. I was on a roll here! Everything I had worked for was right here at my fingertips.

I didn’t question the motivation behind my goals. The rewards of achievement caused enough temporary satisfaction to keep me going until the next one. And so I continued to wake, caffeinate, smoke, go to work, eat, work more, drink (alcohol), and crash into bed, just to repeat the same thing the following day.

I didn’t stop to realize that I was running on a hedonic treadmill, chasing from one goal to another, none of which were aligned with my purpose or heart’s desire.

Hedonic Treadmill: “The tendency of a person to remain at a relatively stable level of happiness [or unhappiness] 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.”

Six months after the nervous breakdown, I found myself in a hospital getting a bone marrow biopsy to confirm whether the cancer had been contained within my lymphatic system or spread into the blood system.

I got so caught up running on the hedonic treadmill, I didn’t realize that there was never going to be a finish line, where I would finally feel at peace within myself.

I didn’t understand that I was simply chasing after things that made me feel a temporary relief from feelings I was running:

Unworthiness, guilt, shame, anger, frustration, judgement, grief …

Through cancer, I got to witness the power of self-inquiry, the need for curiosity, and a quiet longing to live a life that feels more true, authentic, and aligned.

That of course meant de-conditioning who I thought I was supposed to be, what I was supposed to do. And remember who I am, be true to that regardless of other’s expectations and my own fear.

But that’s a whole other story…. First, we have got to step off the Hedonic Treadmill.

How to Get off the Hedonic Treadmill Without Getting Cancer


Be honest with yourself.

Inquire into the nature of your Being.

Ask: Am I enjoying life or just performing in it?

Ask: If I died tomorrow, would I have any regrets?

Make choices that you won’t regret on your death bed.

Don’t wait for life to make those choices for you.

Featured image by artist Steve Cutts

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