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The hedonistic treadmill that is Lagos


The older I get, the more I enjoy non-fiction, in moderation, that is. It still has to be written well. Imagine my joy at discovering The Unexpected Joy of the Ordinary by Catherine Gray. In a light-hearted and insightful blend of memoir, sociology, and psychology, The Sunday Times Bestselling author writes about our never-ending quest for bigger, better and more.

Gray kicks the reader right in the teeth starting at rock bottom with an introduction which details why she wanted to end it all in 2013. Fortunately, the sombre mood doesn’t last long as she turns her life around in just a year. She credits the transformation to three decisions she made in that single year: she quit drinking, she quit on her love addiction and she “learned to locate the forgotten joy of the ordinary.”

“Being disenchanted with our ordinary lives is our default,” Gray continues, “the Times New Roman of our evolution and biology. Our brain is naturally negatively biased. It zeroes in on what’s wrong with our day, and where the predators and pitfalls are before it lands on the positive.”


This, Gray, explained, is down to our hard wiring from thousands of years ago when being vigilant for our hunter-gatherer ancestors meant getting eaten by or dodging a pack of wolves. Yet, millennia later, with primeval dangers removed, our default setting is still “disenchanted, disillusioned, dissatisfied, disgruntled…”

Gray then introduces the concept of the ‘hedonistic treadmill’ which was coined by two psychologists in the 1970s (Brickman and Campbell) to sum up the psychological phenomenon called ‘hedonic adaptation’ – the idea that the quest for satisfaction is never-ending. “Our happiness tends to readjust to baseline, no matter what. No matter how hard you run, you never complete the race. There’s always more belt to pound,” Gray explains.

Never have I felt this feeling more deeply than when in Lagos.

No matter how satisfied you think you are with your life in all its glorious ordinariness, once you fall through the rabbit hole into the smoke and mirrors world of Lagos where nothing is quite as it seems, and nothing quite seems to deliver what it promises, you’re a little girl (or boy) lost, constantly pounding on that belt, never quite able to reach the coveted finish line.

Because in Lagos, there is no finish line. There’s just the Joneses we all race to keep up with, Coles and Dasilvas breathing down our necks, and a Greek tragedy chorus of weary Lagosians at the sidelines grunting daily all our faults and shortcomings.


Don’t get me wrong, wherever you are in the world, we are all riding that vicious treadmill of highs that fail to satisfy until you hit the next high. However, in Nigeria, and especially in Lagos, like everything else – the heat, the noise, the chaos – the treadmill is taken up a notch or ten. Imagine the treadmill at a fairly level incline anywhere in the world, and in Lagos, it’s at a 10% incline, making you work just that much harder to attain all that is just that much less attainable.
Combined with the sickening sense of FOMO (‘fear of missing out’), life gets tough.

Think of owambes, one or three to attend every single weekend, think of the red carpet events and the column inches in Sunday supplements. I remember friends moving back to Lagos and getting into the pages of a Sunday supplement for the first time after attending a film gala or a celebrity’s wedding. The novelty soon wore off. Then they would start fretting that the caption read, ‘and friend.’ Oh, the blasphemy. They would not rest until they got to see their full name in the caption, and not just named ‘and friend’. The novelty of that soon wore off too. It was either the size or the placement of the photo after that, or the most visited gossip blogs or the number of magazines and blogs they would appear on.

The silliest example, if there is, of the Lagosian treadmill.
The same goes for degrees, jobs, cars, houses of course – magnified a hundred times with the coded game of one-upmanship, the proverbial pissing contest.

Take that heart-sinking feeling of failure one would feel on any treadmill anywhere around the world. And multiply it a hundred times and put on display for the Greek chorus of weary Lagosians to see finish.

Gray offers profound wisdom and everyday tips to help the reader wearied by the treadmill and agonised by the never-ending quest for the extraordinary to get off and start finding the joy in the ordinary. As to whether this is at all possible in Lagos, that might take another book!


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