The meaningful action treadmill

Steven Pinker describes ‘the euphemism treadmill’:

People invent new “polite” words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations.

“Water closet” becomes “toilet” (originally a term for any body care, as in “toilet kit”), which becomes “bathroom,” which becomes “rest room,” which becomes “lavatory.”

“Garbage collection” turns into “sanitation,” which turns into “environmental services.”

I think a similar thing can happen with actions that are intended to carry meanings that are contrary to the context in which they are used.

For instance, eating ice cream is a happy activity. Snuggling up in bed is a happy activity. So if you are unhappy, you might try cuddling up in bed and eating ice cream. Eventually eating ice cream in bed becomes a depressing activity because it is what you do when you are unhappy. So now you have to move to some other activity that is still happy. Activities don’t become unhappy instantly, so each one can still cheer you up for a bit.

This naturally happens in the direction of good things coming to be associated with badness. The opposite associations happen too—intrinsically bad things come to be associated with goodness—but I think there is no particular treadmill in that direction. At the time of writing this, I am undressed in a half made bed on a mattress on the floor in a darkened room with little furniture at noon, and the floor is decorated with used glasses, and discarded clothes. Such situations are perhaps intrinsically depressing, but right now it just seems like what having a goal looks like, so it seems nice. In this direction, there is a negative feedback instead of a positive one. If sitting in a messy room is less depressing than usual, I’m less inclined to change to a new activity.

One response to “The meaningful action treadmill

  1. This is a really interesting comparison which has really got in my head the last couple of days. I wonder how many enjoyable things I shy away from doing just because it feels like they’re something only a depressed person would do.

    I guess the equivalent in the opposite direction might be to do with the way some forms of self-denial can feel/appear virtuous, particularly in some religious/puritan traditions? Normally self-flagellation and denial of earthly pleasures would be a negative experience, but they become somehow rewarding because they’re what morally praiseworthy people do? I don’t know, maybe there’s something there.

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