Brain Food #599

We get used to things

Thoughts of the day

The hedonic treadmill is a notion coined by social scientists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell, to indicate our human ability, and curse, to quickly adapt to new circumstances in our lives, returning to a baseline level of happiness despite the positive or negative news that we might receive.

Some argue that this baseline, of course, is movable. Either way, what this idea implies, in simpler terms, is that we get used to things. In a way, we will always be as happy as we are today; a little unhappy with what is beyond our reach, while striving to remember and be thankful for what we have. And somewhere between the two, between working towards getting what we want, and being grateful for what we already possess, is where happiness in its truer, fleeting, more mysterious form may be found.

Van Gogh painted sunflowers throughout his life, making them a symbol of his work, something he could own, experiment with, and use as a motif. For Van Gogh, sunflowers also provided comfort, representing the ideal of a life lived in nature, perhaps freed from the pressures of success, and of constantly having to prove himself to others.

In a letter to his sister, while in Arles and beginning to feel the pains of his forthcoming mental breakdown, Van Gogh wrote that his paintings were “almost a cry of anguish while symbolizing gratitude in the rustic sunflower.”

There are at least eleven works that contain the sunflower as a main subject, and more in which it plays a role. Repainting the sunflowers could have been a practice in being happy with where he was, without needing to move onto something else.