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Our family was poor—at least by the standards of most the people we knew. Mom and Dad had a large family and little money. We didn’t feel poor but I’m sure that’s how many people saw us.
I remember a family trip where, along the way, we spent the night at a Travelodge. Those who travel know that Travelodge is not a luxury chain. Some units might compete with Budget and Motel 6.
I remember sitting with my brothers and sister on the institutionally-flavored carpet watching color TV. Mom and Dad provided us crackers and cheese for dinner. I thought I was in heaven! Traveling! Motel! TV! Crackers and cheese! We were living the high life!
In the years since my childhood, I have stayed in upscale hotels around the US and the world as I have attended professional conferences. None has seemed as magical as that Travelodge decades ago.
Probably you have had related experience. What once seemed magical now feels ordinary or disappointing. Maybe it once seemed exciting to eat restaurant food and now you feel that the places just don’t measure up. Maybe you were once amazed by your house but now you look longingly at places that are a little nicer.
Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill. As we experience new wonders, we raise our expectations. As a result, it takes more and more jolts just to keep the same level of well-being.
You can see what a trap this is. The more we have, the more we expect. We get a lovely new home but, over time, we notice what we’re missing; we feel that we need more or better space. We get richer and richer but our discontents and demands grow apace. The effect is that we have richer, fuller, more pleasant lives than kings and queens of past ages, but we are not one whit more grateful.
The Lord counsels to get off the hedonic treadmill: “When thou risest in the morning let thy heart be full of thanks unto God” (Alma 37:37).
I learned a lot about gratitude from my experience with cancer. I remember that, soon after I got home from surgery and a week in the hospital, I took a bath. As I tried to climb out of the tub, I was so weak that I fell to the floor. I could not even crawl to the bed. Nancy covered me with warm towels and blankets until I had the strength to move an hour later. Today, six years later, I hike two or three miles almost every day with Nancy. I may not jog like I used to, but I can walk and hike. I am so grateful! Every step feels like a miracle!
When I notice that my balance is not as good as it used to be, I thank God for the miracle of balance and that I still have some balance left. When my knees complain, I laugh at the miracle of legs that carry us gladly (or grudgingly) from place to place. When I wish the weather were not so hot, I remember our friends without air conditioning.
I want to play the glad game with Pollyanna who took every situation—even painful ones—and found something to be glad about.
There are many who push themselves for faster times, better performance, and higher profits. There may be a place for such striving. Maybe. But God seems far more interested in our holiness than anything else. We must not let our goals get in the way of gratitude for abundant blessings already received. We should not let our yearnings get in the way of constant gratitude.
Ye do not remember the Lord your God in the things with which he hath blessed you, but ye do always remember your riches, not to thank the Lord your God for them; yea, your hearts are not drawn out unto the Lord, but they do swell with great pride, unto boasting, and unto great swelling, envyings, strifes, malice, persecutions, and murders, and all manner of iniquities. (Helaman 13:22)
In contrast, God invites us to be like Moroni:
Yea, a man whose heart did swell with thanksgiving to his God, for the many privileges and blessings which he bestowed upon his people; a man who did labor exceedingly for the welfare and safety of his people. (Alma 48:12)
What are you thankful for this very minute? Take time to tally some of the rich blessings God has granted you. As you do, you will find that your heart swells with thanksgiving to God.
To learn more about the hedonic treadmill, read Jonathan Haidt’s Happiness Hypothesis or Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness.
To learn more about finding happiness from an LDS perspective, read my Finding Joy in Family Life.