Improving Long-Term Hedonic Tone

Defining Hedonic Tone

If we take “hedonic tone” to mean the general level of pleasure you derive from everyday activities, then we shall soon realize that hedonic tone is indeed the filter through which you come to evaluate your life and every event that happens in your life.

Considering hedonic tone on a 1-10 scale, if we take 1 as being “little or no pleasure”, then we will see that people with a low hedonic tone will find life to be a struggle. Their main focus will be on “getting things” or “fulfilling conditions” in order to improve their low hedonic state. The lower the general hedonic tone, the more “things” will be needed, the more “conditions” will need to be met, before reaching an acceptable hedonic level (if at all).

Pause for a moment and consider the things you do or think about every day in order to raise your hedonic tone — much of them often desperate and seemingly impossible goals, such as “get X amount of women into bed” or “make Y amount of money” or “get the job of my dreams”, and so forth. A low general hedonic tone demands far more of an individual before allowing itself to rise. This could theoretically lead to high achievement, but more practically it leads to ongoing frustration and perpetuation of low hedonic tone. The cycle is self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating, as more demands are made, many of which take a long time to cultivate in practical terms, and which do not deliver that level of instant gratification which our hedonic drives really respond to.

Let’s consider someone with a general hedonic tone of 10, which would be “deriving pleasure from all of the simplest things”. I know such people, although they are rare. I know a guy who says things like “Isn’t it great having a fish at work? Whenever I’m bored I just look at the fish and feel awesome.” This kind of mindset is entirely foreign to those with generally low hedonic tone, who are instead busying themselves with far more complex and often unattainable (in the short-term) goals.

  • For people with generally high hedonic tone, everything is great already — and getting more is just a bonus.
  • For people with generally low hedonic tone, life is a total drag until something great happens — and then they are “satisfied” for just a short while until they are shortly reminded of how unlikely and how difficult achieving or getting such a thing was, at which point they get bummed out again and return to their default state of low hedonic tone and wait for the “next big thing” to come along.

Another important observation I have made is that those with high default hedonic tone get more of the good things in life, and with far less effort. This makes sense if we just consider that most of the “getting” we think of involves social dynamics. Unless you live in a third-world country, most of the “getting” in life is about fostering rewarding relationships with other people. People with high hedonic tone (HHT) are happier already, by virtue of deriving pleasure at far lower thresholds. People like happy people. When we see a happy person, our mirror neurons fire and we feel happy also. We want to be around the source of this happiness (the HHT person), so we keep them around, and give them things, and revel in shared happiness. Low hedonic tone (LHT) individuals however fair much worse because, by virtue of their lack of pleasure, the pain of getting their most basic needs met is evident on their faces and in their body language and this acts as a repellent for other people — remember, we are all seeking pleasure and avoiding pain first and foremost.

The social value of being happy through experiencing ongoing pleasure should be obvious, but if it isn’t, please take a few minutes to consider this last paragraph and think of examples where you have seen this in action. We know mirror neurons are massively important in socializing, and that if you are feeling pain signals in response to something, everyone else is picking up on that. That’s even things like “These people don’t like me” — “No no, think positively!” <— This internal conflict manifests simply as pain on your face despite your awareness of it and best efforts to stifle feeling like an idiot or a loser. I gave that example because most of the email in my mailbag every week is along the lines of “I still feel like people think I’m an idiot.” You’ve got to realize that the internal conflict itself is based in pain signals (low hedonic tone), and that your face is the transmitter of this internal conflict — hence, feeling like an idiot repels others from you, not vice-versa. Your low hedonic tone causes these internal conflicts and causes these pain signals which then transmit to others causing a self-fulfilling prophecy. The solution: raise your hedonic tone.

Raising Hedonic Tone

This is not a finished post. This is the beginning of my analysis into raising hedonic tone in the long-term, with my findings so far. The idea behind this post is to cause a simple realization: that all your thoughts day-to-day are a RESULT of your general hedonic tone. Happy people do NOT have this sheer amount of negative thoughts. Therefore, playing with the thoughts themselves is fairly pointless. If you don’t like apples, chop the apple tree down — don’t pick the apples and throw them away, expecting them not to grow back. Change your hedonic tone, and the thoughts change automatically. Think again of the guy looking at the fish. NO INTERNAL CONFLICT. His brain is set up to experience pleasure, and his daily experiences then reflect that.

Biologists and neuroscientists have generally maintained for several decades that default hedonic tone is based in our DNA and cannot be changed. As is usual when dealing with something like the human brain, this is not the full story. For example, we now know that DNA can be turned on and off. We do not come with a “fixed template” which never changes — rather, we come with an adaptive template where large parts of it can be turned on or off in line with environmental and internal events.

Rather than saying something vague like “think positive!”, I am going to try and provide advice from my own observations on how to experience more pleasure and filter life through a higher hedonic tone. This has come from my own testing, and I’d like everyone also to test it, and provide their own tested methods.

1) Setting hedonic tone upon waking. We have all heard the phrase “I got out on the wrong side of bed this morning” as an excuse for why someone is in a bad mood for the rest of the day. There seems to be a lot of truth in this — hedonic tone seems to be “set” for the day set upon waking, i.e. whatever state you wake up in seems to perpetuate throughout much of the day. Saying “I got out on the wrong side of bed” however dismisses the whole phenomenon as being chance-orientated, e.g. “This is how I woke up, this is how I’m going to be, it’s just one of those things and I can’t do anything about it.” Much human fable and idiom is about continuing to perpetuate the idea of chance and fate to avoid having to take responsibility for our own emotional state and actions. Don’t be like everyone else. The good news is that your hedonic state can be manipulated during this period immediately upon waking. Ordinarily, people let their thoughts filter into their heads as they come and take them very seriously, e.g. “Got to go to f**king work again…” or “That thing I went to sleep to avoid having to think about is back in my head”. Instead, sweep away any negative thoughts and spend at least 10 minutes smiling genuinely, letting good feelings wash over you, and breathing comfortably, which seems to “let good feelings in”. You will know when this is complete when you are feeling good and everything seems “quiet” (the end of thoughts always seems “quiet”). I talk more about ways to feel good in the second part of this post: — use this by all means, and discover your own ways to make yourself feel good upon waking, and post them in this thread. Cold showers I have also found to be effective at sweeping away negative thoughts as it puts your awareness squarely back in your body.

Consider the cascade effect of waking up in a bad mood — your attention is on negative things, causing more negative things to happen such as focusing on being late, blah blah, or hurrying around and making mistakes which cause more bad thoughts and feelings. Then your first social interactions are negative because the pain is pouring out of you, and you are souring the air by virtue of your mood. You’re a jerk, everyone thinks you’re a jerk, and the day is wasted.

Now consider stopping this cascade as soon it starts by sweeping away such thoughts and instead smiling and changing your mood to POSITIVE. A new cascade starts and you are set up for the day. The time has come to acknowledge how such cascades begin and take responsibility for allowing them to perpetuate. Choose to activate a positive cascade every day.

2) Consciously drawing your attention to, and deriving pleasure from, the small things in life. This may take some practice but that is no reason not to do it. The idea is simply enjoyment of the smallest moments of your morning, from the first cup of coffee, to the thrill of the cold shower (if you take them — and if you don’t, START), to feeling the spring air as you leave the house, to noticing the sunlight, birds, bees and trees. Think again of the guy who likes the fish: seek pleasure from the tiniest things.

This point is best done, of course, after point one. You are then to continue drawing your attention to, and seeking pleasure from, things in your environment for the rest of the day. Is that effort? Is cycling negative, meaningless, destructive and energy-sapping thoughts through your head for hours each day more effort? You will find that it is. Seeking pleasure in the small things is actually the EASIER path.

3) Regular breaks, meditations, re-centring, or “pleasure top-ups”. Every few hours you should sit still or go somewhere peaceful for around 10 minutes and simply let all thought loops end. I talk about how to do this in the first part of this post: Then, you should draw your attention back to pleasurable things, and purposely feel happy. Again, think of the guy and the fish. He is doing just this, and he is so well-practised at it, the process happens very quickly for him. The process can become fast for you, too.

I believe, over time, that taking conscious control over your hedonic tone on a daily basis will turn up your default hedonic tone in the long term. This kind of conscious management is the control we have over ourselves above the DNA level, and I believe there is a large scope for such control.

This is not about “quick fixes”; it is about ongoing conscious management to raise hedonic tone in the long term. If you want quick fixes, go and buy yourself a Ferrari. You’re no better off in the long-term however than if you’d just taken the time to enjoy a sunset.

However, I have found that there is a huge capacity for fast reward by just choosing to be happy. Hedonic tone affects the quality of thought and feeling you will have over the course of the day, which greatly affects the quality of your human social interaction through mirror neurons. If you take time to enjoy a sunset, you might find that that girl you like suddenly seems to like you back, or that that business deal is suddenly looking a lot more promising. Setting hedonic tone is about getting the little things right so the big things follow naturally as a matter of course.

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