There are really two ways to become more content with life, as contentment is really just a comparison between what is actually happening to us and what we expect or desire to happen to us. When these match or our expectations are exceeded we are content. Humans do not perceive absolutes very well. Unless we are in destitute poverty without enough food or water, or we are freezing to death with no shelter we only know if we are doing well by looking around and comparing ourselves to others. If others have better or more stuff than us then we are relatively poor. If they appear more comfortable and happy then we are less comfortable and less happy, and we suffer. It is this gradient that we see, and often we allow ourselves to feel sorry for ourselves when the gradient becomes too great.
The problem with this is we are using things we cannot control to influence our emotional state. If we were to design a brain from first principals this would be the exact opposite of what we would do. Maybe hundreds or thousands of years ago when everything was scarce and our survival depended upon it this was useful, but for most of us reading this, living in the absolute abundance of the first world, our brain is now just a tool for amplifying suffering that does not really exist.
Let’s say I am driving around in a 16 year old car (I was doing this until very recently). It lacks many of the standard features that come with basic cars today. It is small and underpowered relative to newer cars. It has a few minor things that are slightly annoying but don’t affect its driving performance. When I look around I see that the vast majority of people have ‘better’ cars than me. If I don’t carefully think about this situation I may just wander into a car dealership and upgrade to a new car, one that is now better than most on the road. This will bring a temporary feeling of well being as anyone who has bought a new car can attest to.
This happens all the time. We want “better” because we feel we are missing out. Someone has something better than us, so they must be happier. Cars, houses, phones, wine, spouses; it doesn’t matter really. We are slaves to our desire for “better” and many times the pursuit makes us miserable. Most of us keep spinning on the hamster wheel trying to catch up to our desires, whereas the deceptively easier route is to simply retrain our mind to desire less. This seems like madness to many, after all why would I want to desire less? Wouldn’t that make me more miserable? It turns out no; this is exactly 100% wrong. Remember that the vast majority of the time we only detect the gradient, not the absolute.
Let’s return to the car example. Instead of lamenting the 16 year old (totally paid off and dirt cheap to maintain) car by comparing to others around us with $70k luxury SUVs and monster trucks we only need to travel back in time a few hundred years and realize we have something that no one even dreamed of owning. For a couple hours of work most of us can jump in our car and travel hundreds of miles in any direction in complete climate controlled luxury. We can listen to our favorite song and carry hundreds if not thousands of pounds of our favorite possessions with us. If our passengers get bored it is likely they can pull out powerful supercomputers from their pockets and access an unlimited amount of information and entertainment in all but the most remote places. For a few cents a day we can insure that someone will drive out to help us in case we suffer a mechanical breakdown, run out of gas or get a flat tire. We do not need to worry about hostile natives, breaking a wagon wheel, running out of food or dying of dysentery. It’s absurd how good most of us have it.
Holy %&^$! When we frame it this way we realize that we are living like kings. We have mastered our environment like someone 200 years ago couldn’t have dreamed. I replaced that 16 year old car a couple years ago, but looking back at it I almost feel a little embarrassed for the reasons why. I just wanted something better. More power, more safety (maybe a legitimate reason actually), more convenience. I spent my life energy though. It is a nice car and I enjoy it, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really make me any happier. Yeah the heated seats are nice on really cold days and I enjoy the quieter ride. The fact that podcasts and music automatically start playing from my phone through the speakers is kind of cool. It is my new normal though. The gradient is gone and I am back to baseline. I guess I am not immune to hedonic adaption. None of us are.
If we are not careful this can seep into every nook and cranny of our lives. Better clothes, fancier wine and a sleeker faster iPad. They all seem reasonable, but just know they will not make you happier. They will make you poorer however. This is not a problem if you live beneath your means and are happy to trade your life energy for money in whatever your job is, but it is a problem if you do not fit this profile.
Here is what I would suggest doing instead. Learn about the power of stoicism and gratitude. Recalibrate your desires to an internal focus rather than external. Start ignoring what others seek for happiness and figure out what makes you happy. Reset your happiness set point and learn to enjoy and take advantage of that gradient. Realize less is more. Realize that most of what you think makes you happy is an illusion. Realize your happiness is a chemical reaction (albeit a very complex one) inside your skull. You can influence that reaction. Your perception and internal response to events will determine your happiness.
A recent example of this:
I went on vacation to Hawaii.
I love Hawaii, but what I don’t love is flying thousands of miles over the Pacific Ocean which I’m guessing is full of sharks and other hungry and dangerous creatures.
This fear is not quite rational, since I jump into my car and drive thousands of miles without a second thought to my safety even though it is a much more dangerous activity. On the plane flight back I was not exactly happy. Every time we hit a bad patch of turbulence my lizard brain kicked in and made me anxious. My adrenal glands apparently did not give a shit about aviation safety statistics. The thing is, everyone on that flight was in the same situation, although we were all having a different subjective experience. I looked around me and noticed a woman smiling while watching a movie. She was by all objective measures quite happy, whereas I was most certainly not happy. This was interesting to me. Recognizing this I realized there was no rational reason why I couldn’t be as happy as her. I did some light meditation and consciously started letting go of my anxiety. I started paying attention to everything around me and accepted reality for what it was. It helped a little. I did actually feel my anxiety lessen. I watched a movie and became a little happier myself. I shifted my perception and changed my reality, even though nothing had changed. I thought about how lucky I was to even have the opportunity to go to an isolated tropical paradise in the middle of nowhere. We all have this power within us to realize contentment.
Instead of grasping at more things as 2016 winds to a close do this instead:
- Sleep well.
- Eat good food.
- Move your body.
- Love your friends and family.
- Hug people (maybe not strangers – use your judgement here).
- Listen to music you love.
- Stop worrying about things you can’t control.
- Pay attention to the present.
Happy holidays my fellow philosophers. Find something to have gratitude for this season. Find a little extra happiness from within. When you do smile and know that you have the power to do this anytime you want.