By Eddie Pipkin

One of the researchers I linked you to last week touched on the topic of hedonic adaptation (also known as the hedonic treadmill), a concept that’s been around in psychology for a long time–our tendency to grow accustomed to our circumstances over time and revert to an average (for us) emotional state.  With that on my mind, I had occasion to visit a church I hadn’t visited in quite a while.  Everything was exactly as I remembered it, and maybe that’s one reason this particular congregation is wondering why people who used to show up aren’t showing up anymore.  Even in worship spaces where everything is done with excellence, we have to help people get back in touch with what it was that got them excited in the first place.

The idea of hedonic adaptation (the hedonic treadmill) has been around since scholars first formally defined it in the early 1970s, although it existed in various forms as a philosophical idea since the age of the Greek philosophers.  The basic concept is that the thing that made us deliriously happy a couple of months ago no longer brings the same level of happiness today.  We get used to things, even bright, shiny things.  In order to get happy again, we need even more and more (that’s the treadmill part).  Hedonic adaptation is a major component of happiness studies, which are a current trend in academic research and popular media reporting.  It’s always been a part of the principles of minimalism and the serious study of good stewardship by Christian disciples.  ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ has never been a path to a contented and meaningfully engaged soul.

For local congregations this has implications as well.  People become bored with the same-old-same-old in Sunday worship.  As a result they stop participating.  Or, as we increasingly see across the board in ministry, they participate much less frequently.  They might feel that the spiritual recharge they receive from worship attendance or active ministry participation need only be engaged once or twice a month, rather than on a weekly basis.

Many local congregations over the past two decades have fought against this trend by adding bells and whistles, technology, and high-energy modifications to what worship looks like—the megachurch modern worship model.  And the problem has been that the law of hedonic adaptation means that a razzmatazz worship experience must keep getting progressively bigger and better to generate the same level of buzz.  Many local congregations have learned the bitter lesson that this model is not sustainable over the long term.

A shout-out to Chicago’s David Bjorlin for a recent blog on this topic:

I believe an understanding of hedonic adaptation can help pastors, worship leaders, and planners avoid the trap of needing to make each Sunday, each series, each feast day bigger and better than the one before it. We’ve all experienced this, right? A series or a season goes really well, and immediately the question becomes, “How can we make the next one even better?” So, like the guitar amp in This Is Spinal Tap, we grow accustomed to a 10, so we try to turn the next service up to 11. Hedonic adaptation tells us that this is a losing game. When every Sunday has to be a mountaintop experience, we have to keep elevating the mountain to give worshipers the same emotional experience. From what I have observed, this tends to lead to an insatiable congregation and a burnt out pastoral staff.

Excellent points (and we’ve written before in this space about that phenomenon of burn-out-by-burgeoning-bombast—Bjorlin, in the same blog, also offers a ‘technical’ analysis of the hedonic treadmill effect in the selection of worship music—songs that build and build in predictable emotional ways, so that over time we become inured to their effects).  Bjorlin’s solution to getting off the treadmill centers on a deeper appreciation of worship seasons as defined by the lectionary.  I am famously no fan of the lectionary.  I think it makes us too often lazy, unimaginative, and predictable (a trifecta of evil twins of the good it’s designed to do), but I take his point.  There are busy, exciting seasons in the life of the church, and there are ‘ordinary’ seasons.  High energy seasons and seasons of rest.

I think that in a world in which attendance and participation are not socially driven by compunction, we have to be honest that if we speak publicly about seasons of intensity and seasons of recovery, people are going to interpret their seasons of recovery as taking a few weeks off from what we’re offering.

I think a better option is, rather than lessening our workload by streamlining what we’re offering on Sundays, it’s a perfect time to embrace a distribution of leadership (which is a trickier but infinitely more rewarding method of lessening one’s workload).  If we have more people involved in worship design and leadership, we can rotate who has a greater responsibility for a given worship series, not only thereby avoiding the pitfalls of burnout and idea stagnation, but also celebrating the diversity of perspectives and the rich tapestry of ministry experiences inherent in any vibrant congregation.

Looking at the same things from a new angle is one of the most powerful tools to offset the ennui.  Giving some power to people with varied perspectives and experiences to share in leadership is a pathway to experiencing those new angles—it’s great ‘many parts of one body’ theology brought to fruition, and it has the added benefit of helping a diverse congregation feel powerfully connected to your mission.

Those who study hedonic adaptation have carefully considered other ways to counterbalance its effects.  The Big Think website summarizes some of the proven strategies for meaningful engagement in the blessings at hand (keeping in mind as you read that their article is focused on helping individuals avoid the negative effects of becoming desensitized to the good things in their lives):

Activities such as exercise, expressing gratitude, altruism, and taking time to savor or appreciate the good things in life have all been shown to influence short-term wellbeing very much, and there is evidence that they can nudge that hedonic set point up the scale in the long-term as well.

Additionally, the hedonic treadmill is due, in part, to processes of desensitization and adaptation — we get used to things. Because of this, variety is a powerful means of combatting the hedonic set point’s inexorable tug. Persistently engaging in a variety of positive activities or varying how one performs a given positive activity can trick your stubborn brain into actually feeling good about things.

What works for individuals works for congregations.  Just as an individual might practice the ‘disciplines’ listed in those paragraphs which will keep a positive emphasis on routine activities and charge them with renewed meaning, ministry leadership can embrace the same principles, working them into the ministry routine:

  • Variety: The need to engage familiar themes from a wide variety of different, illuminating angles is paramount.

Change things up.  Use all the senses.  Tell stories that connect the material to listeners in new ways.  From preaching to praying to music to sacraments to the soul-crushing sameness of ‘announcements,’ mix it up.  Be inventive—if you’re not inventive, give somebody that job, and listen to their ideas and advice.

  • Gratitude: Give people regular opportunities to express their gratitude.

That means giving them regular opportunities to thank the people that are making things happen and to express their appreciation of the components of ministry which they find most compelling.  Regularly publicly celebrate the people who lead worship, for instance, but also celebrate the behind-the-scenes folks, and give worship participants a chance to chime in—not only by clapping their hands.  How about a permanent ‘Appreciation Board’ in the hallway where people can write thanks for ministry aspects and people about whom they are grateful?  How about having the praise team hang out at the back of the room for a change as people are leaving so that they can shake team members’ hands and directly express their thanks?  How about telling stories as often as possible, even about things like the Bible and liturgy that help people appreciate their history and power?

  • Altruism: Giving people ways to give is a powerful way to be reminded of why they value ministry.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but the more we are invested in a cause, the more connected we feel to that cause.  Those connections need to be explicit and intertwined in the work of worship, not relegated to a two-minute announcement.  It is good to remind people how their generosity and stewardship make all ministry possible.  The definition of altruism highlights a “devotion to the welfare of others,” and there are plenty of worship opportunities (and regular social media opportunities) to remind people of their capacity to do that beyond financial gifts, through prayer, service, kind words, and sacrificial acts of love.

  • Exercise: For an individual, physical exercise releases feel-good chemicals and builds a sense of ongoing health and well-being that makes life better.  For folks in our congregations, exercise in that context is equivalent to participation in the ministry context.

People who regularly participate actively (as opposed to merely passively) are much more appreciative of and connected to our ministry.  Therefore, we should work to give many engaging opportunities to participate, both within worship and beyond the doors of the sanctuary.

  • Savor: Allow people to more deeply appreciate the individual components of worship by celebrating them and lingering with them for an extended time.

Teach the rich history of our traditions, how they came to be and why they matter.  Help people rekindle the original love they had for prayer, scripture reading, communal affirmations, confession, passing the peace, and the sacraments.

If we do these things, we can escape beyond the pull of the hedonic treadmill.  We can revel in the blessings of doing community together, serving together, bearing one another’s burdens, and deepening our spiritual walk together.

How have you personally developed strategies to hop off the hedonic treadmill?  How do you help your congregation avoid the pitfalls of hedonic adaptation (without burning yourself out by trying to make every single activity and event bigger and better than the last)?  Share your own wisdom in the comments section.  We all learn from one another.