In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a Corinthian king punished by Hades for cheating death. Every day, Sisyphus was tasked with rolling a giant boulder up a steep hill, only for it to roll back down just before reaching the peak. Day after day he tried to reach the top, and day after day he ended up right back where he started. He suffered for eternity, but never saw any progress from his efforts.
This ancient myth has become a metaphor for the exercises in futility that we all tend to subject ourselves to on a regular basis.
It’s not the struggle of life that scares us – it’s the idea of struggling without any reward to show for it. The story strikes at the root of the questions we all ask ourselves but are often too afraid to pursue the answer: Why are we here? Where are we going? What’s the purpose to all of life’s busyness?
There are three main categories of exercises in futility, all of which have to do with the types of actions we choose and how they relate to our Ideal. The first two both stem from placing too much focus on either the pain or pleasure of our actions, and the third occurs when we stop focusing on our actions altogether.
Convert Your Distress Into Eustress By Turning Obstacles Into Objectives
Suffering too much, or suffering without associating its stress with a deeper meaning, will lead to the distress of burnout. Much like redlining your engine, if you allow your cortisol levels to get too high or stay elevated for too long, then your eustress turns into distress, which impairs your focus and thus prevents you from effectively pursuing your goals. While a little bit of suffering is healthy, too much suffering can distract us from what’s really important. Eventually, these elevated cortisol levels can cause chronic anxiety and even depression. I’ve experienced both, and can attest that they lead to a downward spiral deep into a hole where the power of your purpose seems incapable of pulling you out.
But fortunately, your inner design assures that you always have a choice to climb back out of your despair. Paradoxically, though, the path away from suffering often requires you to suffer even more. The most effective source of happy hormones is through flow, which can be achieved as a byproduct of deliberate practice. Deliberate practice, though, requires a moderate amount of eustress (stress connected to a goal). So even within your stressful situation, the best solution is to find new stress that you can align with your Ideal. Csiskzentmihalyi was intrigued by this notion, writing, “Why are some people weakened by stress, while others gain from it? Basically the answer is simple: those who know how to transform a hopeless situation into a new flow activity that can be controlled will be able to enjoy themselves, and emerge stronger from the ordeal.”
When you connect your own personal pain to the unique purpose of your Ideal, the same external forces that you once considered to be obstacles to your path are transformed into the Objectives essential to the execution of the I GOT This framework. By taking your own anxiety and connecting it to a goal to deliberately practice, you can link your cortisol with dopamine and enter into a joyful flow state even in the midst of your suffering.
If, at the end of another long day, Sisyphus had found the strength to push his boulder just a little further to the peak of the hill, he would have found his suffering rewarded by the power of gravity as it pulled the rock forward into newly discovered territory.
Get Off the Hedonic Treadmill By Focusing on the Process
When we think about distress, we usually associate it with the experience of painful external forces like cancer or imprisonment, which aren’t inherently associated with any positive reward. But we can experience distress just as strongly by having too many pleasurable rewards, or at least by focusing on them too much. This is the pain of the hedonic treadmill, the addiction to the intermittent rewards of goal achievement with a reduced emphasis on the process of goal pursuit.
If you were to pick Sisyphus up from the “pain side” of the hill and flip him around on the opposite “pleasure side”, he would have the same exact experience – just heading in a different direction. And in fact, if you look at his background story you can see the impact that his own quest for pleasure and power on the fate of his eternal punishment. In his mortal life, Sisyphus was a selfish ruler who was obsessed with the material rewards of being king, and who angered the gods by killing rival guests who stayed in his palace. For the ancient Greeks who told his story, his emotional addictions were a key contributor to his eternal sufferings.
When we focus too much on the intermittent results of uncontrollable rewards, we become addicted to securing more of them and begin pursuing quick hits of our chemical cravings from progressively unhealthier sources.
For example, instead of getting our serotonin from healthy interdependent relationships, we might choose to source it directly from food, overeating and putting us in an overweight situation where we feel like it’s even harder to earn the respect from others. The farther we go down this path, the harder it is to get enough happy hormones to appease our appetite.
And when that happens, the void of evolutionary hormones triggers the survival mechanism of cortisol to kick in, creating distress that distracts our focus from the Ideal just as much as if we were experiencing painful suffering.
The Only Way to Move Forward is Through Action
If we can’t experience pleasure without pain, and too much pleasure itself leads to pain, then you might be thinking that the best option would be to disregard pleasure entirely and thereby avoid suffering altogether. Instead of continuing to push the boulder to the top of the hill, maybe we shouldn’t begin pushing it in the first place. After all, if there is always going to be another hill to climb on the other side, what’s the point in moving forward at all? Isn’t that just an extension of life’s futility?
Part of the appeal of choosing to stay comfortable is that at times it can seem like flow. When you mindlessly watch TV or scroll through Facebook, the attention of your prefrontal cortex is completely consumed with an activity devoid of any long-term goal. When this happens, the perception of time is disrupted because it is no longer necessary to aid in goal planning and feedback analysis, and before you know it an hour has passed.
But where flow requires full engagement and results in a more complex self, mindless activities leave you right back where you started. Flow is like rebooting your system for an upgrade installation, while zoning out is like clicking the “Restart Without Updates” option. It might feel good to experience a temporary escape from some other mental suffering you have been trying to avoid. But that suffering is still there waiting for you, and you did nothing in the interim to better prepare yourself for dealing with it.
The Paradox of Our Comfort
But still, the choice to avoid discomfort at all costs is one that many people in today’s society make. In his book The Comfort Crisis, Michael Easter warns that “most people today rarely step outside of their comfort zones. We are living progressively sheltered, sterile, temperature-controlled, overfed, under-challenged, safety-netted lives.”
To see why this is such a dilemma, let’s take a closer look at the “temperature-controlled” example. For our not-too-ancient ancestors, the balancing act of internal temperature regulation was a part of daily life. At night it got really cold, and so their bodies converted the “brown fat” of their adipose tissue to keep warm. Then, they would exercise their sweat glands during the heat of the day to keep cool. Back and forth, they used the stress of their environment to keep their internal homeostasis in proper balance.
When we never get out of balance, we never get a reward for coming back to center. Over time, this lack of reward creates a void of happy hormones that eventually triggers the same type of stress that technology had been keeping us from having to deal with.
Based on these interactions, it should come as no surprise that studies show significant improvements in anxiety levels after using an ice bath immediately after exiting a sauna – by exercising our natural stress-response systems, we get better at dealing with all types of stress. The most effective form of stress-response exercise is the deliberate practice of our Goals.