| November 25, 2018

A Man's Life

Getting Over the Horror of the Same Old Thing

Does your life ever feel like the movie Groundhog Day? You seemingly repeat the same old loop over and over again: wake up, commute, work, commute, home, bed. Rinse and repeat.

It can feel a little depressing, a little desperation-producing. It can seem like inhabiting a certain kind of hell.

To understand and break out of it, then, perhaps what we need is some intel from a fictional emissary who is intimately familiar with that very landscape.

The Horror of the Same Old Thing

C.S. Lewis’ classic book, The Screwtape Letters, is famously structured as a series of missives, penned by an eponymous senior demon to Wormwood, his nephew and “Tempter-in-training,” on how best to lead human beings astray.

In one of these satirical letters, Screwtape suggests that Wormwood “Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing”:

“The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion, folly in counsel, infidelity in marriage, and inconstancy in friendship.”

The horror of the Same Old Thing is useful to Tempters, Screwtape explains, because it increases a human’s desire for novelty, and “The pleasure of novelty is by its very nature more subject than any other to the law of diminishing returns.” In modern scientific terms, this phenomenon is described as the “hedonic treadmill”: while a new possession/relationship/experience provides an initial rush of elevated pleasure, we soon become adapted to it, so that our happiness returns right back to where it started. To continue getting hits of pleasure, you have to keep moving on from one thing to another — a new gadget, a new girlfriend, a new trip. Or, you have to increase the “dosage” of the stimulus that has stopped giving you the old “high” — “progressing” to ever more explicit porn, bigger purchases, or literally harder drugs.

Frantically running on the hedonic treadmill can lead to some poor decisions — to overspending, to damaging relationships, to messing up your health — and to simply never staying with something long enough to get good at it, to make something meaningful of it.

Even if one does not respond to the horror of the Same Old Thing by endlessly searching for novelty, its specter — the burden of feeling bored by the monotony of one’s life — can lead to discontent, malaise, and depression.

One need not think his immortal soul is at stake, to recognize that figuring out how to handle the horror of the Same Old Thing is critical to his earthly happiness.

To Every Season, Turn, Turn

In each of Screwtape’s letters, Lewis cleverly reveals the wiser path by having the senior demon describe the ideal state of affairs that Tempters must actively work to sabotage. In the particular letter referenced above, Screwtape explains how the Enemy (God) counters the horror of the Same Old Thing:

“The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change. And since they need change, the Enemy (being a hedonist at heart) has made change pleasurable to them, just as He has made eating pleasurable. But since He does not wish them to make change, any more than eating, an end in itself, He has balanced the love of change in them by a love of permanence. He has contrived to gratify both tastes together in the very world He has made, by that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm. He gives them seasons, each season different yet every year the same, so that spring is always felt as a novelty yet always as the recurrence of an immemorial theme. He gives them in His Church a spiritual year; they change from a fast to a feast, but it is the same feast as before.

Now just as we pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty. This demand is entirely our workmanship. If we neglect our duty, men will be not only contented but transported by the mixed novelty and familiarity of snowdrops this January, sunrise this morning, plum pudding this Christmas. Children, until we have taught them better, will be perfectly happy with a seasonal round of games in which conkers succeed hopscotch as regularly as autumn follows summer. Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up.”

One need not be religious to appreciate the keen psychological insight in this passage.

Let’s unpack it a bit, and then dig into how to utilize it in our lives:

Humans like change; it’s pleasurable to us.

Humans do like familiarity as well. No one wants their life to be a long stretch of unbroken monotony, but we appreciate much sameness. No one would want every day to be a chaos in which you had to continually figure out new routines, learn new tasks, and establish new relationships. Imagine having to re-learn how to tie your shoes or re-start your relationships in the small talk stage every single day — it would be a nightmare! Some sameness saves us. Not only does a sense of permanence help us carry out our lives efficiently and effectively, as well as imparts its own kind of satisfaction, you can’t build any project of significance without sticking with it for long periods of time. You can’t build a meaningful relationship if you’re always trading in your old friend or lover for a new model; you can’t gain mastery in a career if you’re always moving from job to job; you can’t raise Rome, or a child, in a day.

We sometimes feel the horror of the Same Old Thing — we think we can’t be happy doing the same things over and over again — but the truth is that we can be happy with such repetition, if we build some rhythm into it.

To balance the need for novelty, with the need for familiarity, you persist in the same things, but keep them fresh by breaking them into phases or “seasons.”

This dynamic works on a couple of levels.

First, by not doing the exact same things all the time, you don’t grind down events/experiences until you become desensitized to their enticements and they lose their pleasure. By spacing them out, you can repeat the same things over and over, but they retain a degree of novelty and pleasure each time they come back around.

Second, by scheduling certain things as reoccurring events on your calendar, you get the pleasure of looking forward to them. While dopamine is often thought of as the pleasure chemical you experience when you do something rewarding, it’s actually released in anticipation of doing something rewarding. The more good things you know await you, the more pleasure you’ll feel in your life.

Building “Seasonal” Rhythms Into Your Life

The hard part about living a life of seasonality, the reason it’s so easy for us to fall prey to the horror of the Same Old Thing, is that the modern age is set up in a way that’s completely contrary to such rhythms.  

Few people observe a religious Sabbath, or attend a church with a liturgical calendar. Few of us even have a real weekend — one’s job bleeds into evenings during the week, and then into Saturday, and then into Sunday . . . and then Monday comes around again without our ever having truly broken off from work. Our entertainments take the form not of periodic festivals, or monthly bowling leagues, but televisions and phones, the latter of which remain an incessant companion during every waking minute of our lives.

Instead of rhythms, instead of embodying “a union of change and permanence,” we live lives of uniform, flatlined sameness. Everything runs together in an undifferentiated, and depressing, blur.

Restoring a sense of seasonality to your life requires actively countering this cultural paradigm by intentionally building rhythmicity back into it. Here are some ideas on how:

Enhance the pleasure of the traditions already built into your calendar. While modern life is largely flattened and monotonous, some reoccurring events still happen of course — mainly in the form of holidays and birthdays. Sometimes these don’t give us much pleasure though — neither in the anticipation of them nor in their actual celebration — as they don’t depart sufficiently from our normal lives, or are filled with activities we don’t actually enjoy.

Fix that! Establish traditions on/around holidays and your birthday that you 1) truly enjoy, and 2) don’t do at any other time of year. Do some activity that’s only a once-a-year occurrence, travel to a place you only visit on that holiday, eat foods that you only eat on that occasion (while this is determined more or less automatically on holidays, it’s something you can entirely create for yourself on your birthday; dedicate a restaurant as a place you only eat on your birthday, and/or save the eating of a certain favorite food for that day alone, e.g., if you love Pop-Tarts, but can’t justify making them a regular part of your diet, allow yourself to eat all the Pop-Tarts you want on your birthday).

Deliberately create your own “seasonal” events/experiences. The number of cyclically occurring traditions in your life need not be determined wholly by society, but can be something you shape and establish yourself. Intentionally create reoccurring events on a monthly/quarterly/yearly basis, and give them a set date — this ensures a cycle in which your anticipation builds as the event comes closer. Here are some examples:

  • Go running with a friend on the first Saturday of every month
  • Do a date night on the last Friday of every month
  • Do a weekend getaway with your wife every six months
  • Go on an annual trip with your male buddies
  • Participate in an annual race with a group of friends
  • Celebrate a “Friendsgiving” the Saturday before the official Thanksgiving
  • Go out to breakfast with your dad the first Saturday of every month
  • Start a monthly book club
  • Plan quarterly dinners — either homemade or out — with a small group of close friends

Break your pursuits into “phases.” When it comes to your hobbies, recreation, and even music, rather than doing the same thing every day and week throughout the year, look for ways to break your pursuits into different phases.

Take working out, for example. Some people do the same workouts, with the same machines and same weights, every single week, year after year. Consider doing a fitness program that instead incorporates periodization — that is, cycles through phases where you’re doing different exercises and/or lifting different levels of weight. You’re still working out (permanence), but a little differently (novelty), and your workouts will be more effective to boot.

Having a race-prep program works great too — as you build your intensity, taper off, do the race, and then recover, you incorporate a nice dose of variety and rhythm into your life.

Of course, when you’re establishing “artificial” seasons for yourself, don’t forget about using the actual seasons as prompts! Maybe you swim outside during the summer, and lift weights and do indoor cardio during the winter. If you’re a trail runner who frequents the same park every week, you can intentionally decide to run on trails that tend to get overgrown with weeds in the summer, during the winter, and switch to trails that stay clear all year long in the summer.

Seasonality doesn’t just work for workouts, of course, but other hobbies and activities as well. In the spring and fall, our family takes picnic-hikes, and we look forward to the return of this activity after the cold/hot months are over. Perhaps you fish in the summer, and paint in the winter.

You can even decide to introduce seasonality to your music; put certain artists and/or albums in “deep storage” for most of the year, and only bring them out to enjoy at certain intervals of your choosing. Consider creating special soundtracks for holidays that don’t normally have one, like Thanksgiving, or for the different seasons of the year (winter, spring, summer, fall).

Create events for/with other people. Part of the reason we moderns experience life as so monotonous might have something to do with the fact that since 2003 the amount of time Americans spend either attending or hosting social events has declined by 30% (40% among those age 15-24). Not only does being invited to social events give you something to look forward to, hosting them yourself heightens your sense of anticipation even more. Because there’s risk! You worry about whether guests will have a good time. And while stress is a part of that, and part of making your party preparations, stress isn’t always a bad thing — it means you’re alive! The cycle of anticipatory lead-up before the event, excitement in executing it, and release when it’s over, definitely creates a spike in the ordinary flatline of your life.

So consider starting an annual Christmas party, or Fourth of July BBQ, or some other yearly event entirely of your own creation.

Seek novelty, scheduled for the future. Desiring some outright novelty — something new that happens but once — is certainly not a bad thing. You don’t want to crave it manically, or pursue it frantically, but in measured moderation it adds vital zest to life.

But you can still learn something from the seasonal dynamic in how to maximize the pleasure of these one-off experiences. Remember, part of what makes the rhythmic pattern of life pleasurable is that it heightens your sense of anticipation for what’s to come. You can build more of this sense of anticipation into your pursuit of outright novelty, by delaying your gratification of it — if there’s something you want to buy, or a trip you want to take, don’t pull the trigger right away, but set a date in the future for when you’ll fulfill that desire. Research says that people actually get more pleasure from anticipating their vacation than from actually taking it(!), so draw out that pleasure by planning your next trip for a while down the road.

Savor and appreciate life’s rhythms. Simply spacing out your pursuits and intentionally building seasonality into your experiences won’t always automatically increase their pleasure. Some of the satisfaction to be found in the mixture of novelty and familiarity has to be intentionally reflected on and savored.

And use the cycles in your life to motivate yourself to do them better, and to be better, each time they turn round. Part of the benefit of reoccurring events is that they act as a yardstick for taking a measure of things — did you learn from your last race and train harder for this one? Is the relationship between you and your wife closer or more distant than the last time you did this annual camping trip? Are you more in the Christmas spirit this year than you were the last?

Remember that the thing about Groundhog Day is that what starts out as a hellish experience, becomes an opportunity to figure out how to become a better man.