Why you are chasing unhappiness
TQD: Issue 06
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In this issue, Justin shares a story about the Hedonic Treadmill. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ is often mistakenly categorised by its namesake: a pursuit. Justin emphasizes that happiness isn’t a hunt for something out there, it is a long process of internal discovery.
Humans are adaptive by nature. I often hear this pushed in the business world: ‘never be satisfied’. It is meant to glorify the idea of endless conquest. But the spirit of pursuit is a double-edged sword. When taken too far, it can generate internalized pressures of inadequacy and self-resentment.
This is known as the Hedonic Treadmill, and it is the reason why you may be unhappy. It is the idea that we are endlessly running after attractive ‘things’, thinking that they will bring us closer to happiness. This could mean a promotion, a raise, fame, status, or wealth. But the satisfaction of achieving these ‘things’ is short-lived. The pull of accumulating more and more ‘things’ eventually keeps you running in place forever.
I experienced this when starting in the industry. I was constantly surrounded by people who I perceived as more successful than me. I saw my friends, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian (founders of Reddit) sell their company. I’ll never forget what I told Michael Seibel, my Twitch co-founder: “one day, we could each make a million bucks!” At the time, even the thought of that was wild.
But we eventually blew past this goal, selling Socialcam in 2012 for $60 million, and then Twitch in 2014 for $970 million. The funny thing was that even after exceeding my wildest expectations, it reset me to a new standard and I wasn’t any happier - I was just holding more things. My own accomplishments were not enough, as I looked around me to my friends who had founded Dropbox and Airbnb.
After a year-and-a-half at Y Combinator, I started to get restless. It had been a couple years since we had sold Twitch and exited Exec. I wasn’t hitting new heights, and I felt as though my fame and fortune had plateaued. Selective memory kicked in and I forgot how stressed and unhappy I was as a founder. I started looking at some of the founders we had backed at YC, who were raising money for their companies at valuations in the hundreds of millions or billions. They weren’t any better than me! I should get back in the game, start a new company, build something new. In my mind, the next company would be the success story Exec hadn’t been. It would be even bigger than Twitch. This time will be different.
Before I knew it, I was back on the treadmill. Sure, I’d done well, but I had friends who had done even better. My ego was hungry and wanted to be fed. The desire for more nagged constantly at me.
I decided to leave YC and start another new company. This time, I settled on the concept in the most mercenary way I could think of: all I wanted was to create the biggest possible company. Once, again, my dreams were full of insanely large numbers. A ten-billion-dollar company. A hundred-billion-dollar company!
The story of Atrium is best left for another time. What I want to impart here is that the Hedonic Treadmill is not always obvious or trivial. We may not even be aware that we are caught on it, and many of us struggle with getting on and off throughout our lives. Ironically, the pursuit of happiness can lead us into the eternal trap of chasing unhappiness. Being mindful of this is the first step off the treadmill and into the right direction - inwards.
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Thanks for tuning in! See you next week :)