Darth Vader and the Hedonic Treadmill

Remember how we talked about the Hedonic Treadmill the other day? That idea in psychology that we always want more? That barely have we attained a thing that we are already looking for our next conquest?

Before I had ever heard the term Hedonic Treadmill, I had invented a term for the phenomenon in my own life. I called it The Cycle of the Imperfect Life. But I am so mightily glad to know that there is research into this, and that smart people out there have started to look for ways to get us out of the cycle.

Well. As I was waylaid these last few days, I noticed something about my eldest scalawag.

He is six years old, and he is already on the Hedonic Treadmill.

It’s interesting because I have always heard that nearing the seven year-mark, children enter “The Age of Reason,” and I will not hide from you that I have been looking forward to this transition to a more reasonable phase for, oh, I dunno. Seven years, maybe?

You’ll remember that Christmas 2021 was a parenting debacle. I came to the conclusion that I hate giving gifts to my children, and would be just fine if no one else ever did either.

Right around the first of this year, that is, the year in which the child will be turning seven, my indulgent husband and I started noticing a strange thing he was doing: when he would tell us something, or explain something to us, he would do it with a specific set of gestures. Gestures that served to punctuate what he was saying. Gestures that looked very, very grown up.

It was a kind of two-handed, rhythmic chopping the air as he would make a point. As if his thought process was developed enough for him to be knowing that he need to emphasize, in a very adult way, the important thing he wanted to say.

I’m not explaining it well, but I can tell you, this was brand new.

I got to wondering if this, maybe, wasn’t a premise of the long-awaited Age of Reason.

Some phases of growing up see us using the big potty, some see us losing our teeth, some see us doing a two-handed “Listen to me” gesture.

Oh. Did you say more gifts?

My mother sent our boys a bit of money for Christmas. We decided to put-off buying anything to actually put under the tree, because A. We didn’t know what all would be under there from other well-intentioned family members, so wanted to avoid doubling up. B. Honestly, I was wary of what Christmas morning was going to look like, and since my mother was giving us the option of controlling the doling out of gifts, we agreed, the indulgent husband and I, to wait. C. In the past, I have channeled my mother’s generosity on gifts of a more practical nature like pyjamas and shoes, which, unfortunately, do not thrill the hearts of gift openers on Christmas morning, but are things we use literally every day.

So, while I was recovering from my you-know-what, my indulgent husband wanted to give those scalawags a little reward for being smash-up good fellas while he had to be with them 24/7. Off they went.

Several hours later, they were home. The eldest had a Darth Vader costume, the youngest something Star Wars adjacent that I still don’t even quite understand.

Now remember, in our house, we are costume people. I was secretly quite pleased with this new addition to our collection. It looked great! (I have no photos yet, you-know-what meant that I couldn’t even take him to the tomato-red hallway for a photo shoot like I love to do.)

If you were me…

I noticed, over the din of the youngest scalawag and his Star Wars adjacent whatever-that-thing-was, my eldest starting to say things like, “I need a lightsaber,” and “It’s too bad the buttons on the costume aren’t real.”

Then, it came to head. He suddenly didn’t want the costume anymore. Now that he had it at home, he realized that it didn’t fill his (belated made) list of requirements for a Darth Vader costume.

My husband actually said, “We’ll take it back. You haven’t worn it yet.” (We don’t call him indulgent for nuthin’, folks.)

For the next two hours, all I heard was the eldest asking, “If you were me, what would you do?”

And his father saying, “We’ll take it back if you don’t want it.”

I don’t mean one time. I mean one time every ten minutes.

And then it started to get serious. My indulgent husband started questioning if the costume had been a good idea in the first place: maybe eldest scalawag’s fascination with Darth Vader was unhealthy (both boys tend to relate to the villains in a story. Hmmm. Wonder why?)

My husband was consequently questioning his own parenting decisions.

The scalawag in question was already imagining what he would get instead of the costume at the toy store. He was already calling into question the imagined choices he was making about what he would replace his costume with.

Everyone was questioning everything and from my perch on my sickbed, it seemed patently absurd, to the point that I put my foot down.

“No, that costume is not going to be returned, no, you are not going to back to the toy store to get something else instead.” And then, I said actually these words out loud (muffled behind a mask, because when I was in the same room with them, we all had to wear them.)

“You are on the Hedonic Treadmill and someone needs to break the cycle. Might as well be me.”

This was not a criticism of my indulgent husband’s doubts. This was me, hearing my child say things that I have thought, things that I recognize, things that make my life miserable, things that I am trying with every ounce of my being to stop caving to.

This was me, realizing that if at six years-old, he could make himself miserable over a Darth Vader costume the way I did over a Mandy and Jenny doll, he was going to end up like me. And me is not someone I would wish on anyone.

It couldn’t be my indulgent husband, because he doesn’t struggle with this issue. He doesn’t want, scheme, anticipate, obtain, deflate and want all over again in an endless cycle.

When I put down my slippered foot, when I set a very firm boundary, the tension dropped significantly.

Someone who has been there needed to hold the line for my six year-old, because even though he has got the gestures figured out, he isn’t grown-up yet. He could not enter his “Age of Reason” while walking on a treadmill like this.

Can I say something about setting my foot down for my son? I felt like I was actually parenting my child, which if you’ve been following along, is not a statement I make lightly.

When I cared enough to put my foot down, it forced a moment of connection with him…maybe not a warm and fuzzy moment of connection, but connection nonetheless. I was able to sympathize with his confusing feelings of want and disappointment, and he was able to start putting words to those feelings. He even surprised me with a very observant comment: It feels like when I ate all those cookies on Christmas. I just can’t stop.

I knew exactly what he was talking about. He was talking about a dopamine loop, that need for increasing satisfaction each time one small appetite is satisfied. (I watched the kid eat those cookies. Believe me, it was no small appetite.)

I was able to tell him that sometimes we have to make a few bad decisions so that we learn how to make good decisions. I told him I wouldn’t judge him for making bad decisions, that I would love him through his bad decisions, and that my job was to help him learn how to make better ones.

The feelgood ending

My indulgent husband has had to do “school-at-home” for the boys because, due to COVID rules in France, any un-COVID-vaccinated child (they are currently unvaccinated, but only until my youngest turns 5 in two weeks) may not attend school for 17 days (yes, that’s right, 17 days) if a close contact tests positive. I was that close contact.

The next day, after the Hedonic Treadmill talk with my eldest, he wore his Darth Vader costume all day. He did his reading, his math, his crafts, all wearing his Darth Vader costume, every so often putting on a surgical mask under his Darth Vader mask to come sit on the edge of my bed and bring me a drawing.

Published by Lily Fields

I am passionate about contentment. This is a challenge, because I am equally passionate about progress. I get up at 4:00AM to chip away at a solution to this monolithic problem: how to make progress on my contentment. Born and raised in the USA, I married a French philosophy teacher in 1999. We have lived in France since 2007. We stayed young and carefree until life threw us two curveballs in the form of little humans one after another in 2015 and 2017 respectively. Now I am a slightly older, slightly more exhausted version of myself, but with mystery stains on my walls and a never-ending pile of laundry.

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