Are you burned out and getting nowhere?
“It’s a hard thing to leave any deeply routine life, even if you hate it.”
― John Steinbeck
Have you ever felt like you are on a hamster wheel that you can’t get off it?
A couple of years ago, I was so burned out at work that I couldn’t take it any longer. But I didn’t have the energy to quit either. Everyone thought I had a dream job — an executive management position and a big fat paycheck. But, deep inside, I felt miserable.
My job didn’t challenge me enough — it wasn’t fulfilling either. I was so frustrated that I was boycotting everything and accomplishing nothing. I got stuck in useless struggles with my boss and others. The more I complained, the more I hated my job.
I was afraid to act — fear was holding me back. I didn’t want to acknowledge it, but my life had turned into a hamster wheel.
What’s Your Hamster Wheel?
Yesterday, I went for a coffee with a friend of mine.
He’s disengaged and demotivated. Our conversation felt like a déjà vu — we talked about his issues many times before. He wants to quit his job but doesn’t have the energy to look for a new one — being on a hamster wheel is exhausting.
We discussed various solutions in previous conversations, but he feels stuck in a vicious cycle. I don’t judge him. Three years ago, I was experiencing exactly the same.
The more we try to run away from something, the less we realize how stuck we are.
When I decided to get off the hamster wheel, I stop living on autopilot.
At some point, I decided to stop complaining about how toxic my job was. I turned my frustration into fuel to start my consultancy to build fearless cultures. I now focus my energy on something meaningful: to help leaders and their teams make positive change. I spend a lot of time talking to people to understand their challenges and help them ease the pain — work should be exciting, not a painful experience.
Most people feel their jobs are like soul-sucking — they feel trapped in an endless vicious cycle.
Vilayat Inayat Khan said, “The human spirit lives on creativity and dies in conformity and routine.”
Many want to quit but are afraid of making any changes because of their responsibilities — mortgages, family, kid’s education, etc. But I also see a lot of people that want to stay but are afraid to speak up. They have many ideas to make their jobs less painful — but can’t tell their bosses.
The paradox is that, by wanting to protect their way of life, their lives become more miserable.
In times of burnout, we don’t have the energy to jump off the wheel. We keep going on. Doing the same over and over seems like a safe choice. Our routines feel less demanding. However, things won’t change if we keep using the same approach.
You can hide on a hamster wheel, but you can’t run away from your real problems.
The things we do to cope usually make matters worse. We eat or drink too much, buy stuff we don’t need, and lose our sleep — by trying to feel better, we perpetuate our problems.
Most people live in a hamster wheel — the constant effort to run away from where they are, gets them stuck in a never-ending routine. What about you?
The Hedonic Treadmill Trap
Happiness is about the journey, not the destination.
Plato approached happiness as a form of personal growth — it’s about getting satisfaction from our achievements, not from what those accomplishments can earn us.
As Aristotle said, “Happiness depends upon ourselves.”
Happiness is relative. It’s neither a gift other people give to us nor something that things provide us. Happiness is something we create from within — we have a responsibility to protect it.
In World War II, American soldiers with a high-school education or better had greater chances of being promoted. But that didn’t make them feel happy — they saw themselves as doing poorly compared to their peers in civilian life or those who were already officers. On the other hand, less-educated soldiers saw themselves reasonably well compared to their peer or civilians.
Pursuing happiness is like running on a treadmill — no matter how fast you run, you’ll never catch it.
Henry David Thoreau said, “Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”
The Hedonic Treadmill theory describes our tendency to return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite negative or positive events in our lives.
An external event can increase or decrease our happiness. But, after some time, we get used to that new level and then return to our normal level of happiness.
A study by Brickman, Coates & Janoff-Bulman (1987) analyzed two groups of participants who experienced opposing levels of happiness — one composed by lottery winners and the other by people who had been involved in accidents resulting in paralysis.
Throughout the research, both groups, which initially experienced extreme emotions due to their circumstances, eventually returned to a stable level of happiness.
The Hedonic Treadmill is deceiving. Consider this fact: 70% of lottery winners go bankrupt within five years of winning.
Everyone dreams of winning a lot of money. We believe that all our financial issues will be solved — winning will make us happy. However, the fact of becoming rich overnight makes regular people euphoric — they feel like invincible.
Lottery winners start buying everything they always wanted to have. They also give lots of money away to friends and family. And invest tons of cash in things they can’t control or understand. They get stuck in a hamster wheel.
So, how can you avoid getting stuck by constantly chasing what you think will make you happy?
Get off the Hamster Wheel
Treat yourself kindly:
We can all get caught in a vicious cycle. Either we don’t notice it or are afraid to act. Start by not being harsh with yourself. Adding unnecessary pressure and blame will only make things worse.
You just have one life. Don’t waste it running on the hamster wheel.
If you are on a hamster wheel, you are probably exhausted. You are either chasing happiness or running away from a frustrating experience. Before making any decision, take a break. A pause is the most productive time you can manage — it will provide room for both recovery and discovery.
These mindfulness exercises will help you slow down and find focus in your life.
Once you feel reenergized, observe your life from a distance. Why has it turned into a hamster wheel? What are you running away from? Why are you trying to hide?
Stop blaming other people for your frustrations. Silence the voice of self-pity. Instead of playing the victim role, focus on what you can change. Reflect on what’s making you frustrated. Once again, observe without judging.
Get back in control of your life:
Rather than trying to quit something, find out what will excite you.
Reflect on what’s making you stuck. This exercise will help you turn your frustrations into motivation. Also, keeping a daily gratitude journal will make you feel more positive by appreciating the good things in life.
An unbalanced life feels like a constant battle — it’s a never-ending conflict between what you want and what you have to do. A well-balanced life is less about how you spend your time and more about how you appreciate what you do. It’s a state of mind that allows you to enjoy the good moments and don’t get stuck in the bad ones.
Don’t jump from one wheel to another:
Sometimes, by trying to run away from a frustrating situation, we end in a worse place. We usually idealize what we don’t know and criticize what is familiar. Before you move into your next act, make sure you are choosing the right thing, not running away from a negative experience.
Avoid jumping from one hamster wheel to another.