You know the type I mean; an ultra-high definition picture of some mist-wreathed mountain peaks, or suspiciously attractive people laughing on a golden beach that’s just out of focus. The text is overlaid in a nice soft font; something like “Happiness comes from within.”
It’s easy to look at such a poster, dismiss it as cliched nonsense, and go about your day.
But often there’s some truth in these bland sayings.
Happiness, or better - satisfaction and contentment - does come from within, and we’re in danger of forgetting that.
Self-Determination Theory holds that “human beings need three basic things in order to be content; they need to feel competent at what they do; they need to feel authentic in their lives; and they need to feel connected to others.” [Sebastian Junger, Tribe, 22].
These are “intrinsic” motivations – they come from within and deal with our basic psychological needs– as opposed to “extrinsic” motivations, which come from outside of us and are driven by an outcome; fame, power and avoiding negative consequences.
Modern western culture, based on materialistic capitalism, has an unfortunate tendency to push extrinsic motivations to the detriment of intrinsic motivations – tv and social media in particular promote the visually appealing rewards of an extrinsically motivated life.
This is not an attack on capitalism – which has done more to improve the lot of humanity than any other form of government – but an attempt to show that nothing is perfect and to raise awareness of a problem that’s at the root of a lot of our society’s troubles.
We’re told from an early age that long hours and hard work is the way to achieve success in this world – success being determined by large wages, nice cars, expensive stuff. This cultural idea [amusingly known as a “cultural meme”] has been so successful because it hijacks part of our evolutionary behaviour. Humans, like all animals, are programmed to seek new things and new sensations because we need them to survive.
This is why anticipation – and longing - is such a powerful emotion.
Studies show that the pleasure centres of a dog’s brain start sending dopamine – making the dog feel pleasure – when it sees signs food might be near – when it anticipates a reward - but stops sending dopamine when it sees the food itself.
Anticipating something is more potent than getting that thing – and it’s seen in humans. “That’s why children always want new toys, no matter how many they already have, and grown-ups always want new clothes and cars. It’s the newness itself that’s pleasurable.” [Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin 97]. A great deal of the mental health troubles that plague our society can be attributed to this – people going through life thinking the aim is to acquire as much stuff as possible, and disregarding the things that make them truly happy; the need to feel competent, authentic and connected.
The good news is that, if you’re reading this, you’re probably human. That means you’re a rational, reasoning, thinking creature that is able to take control of its desires and its actions. It is, I believe, vitally important to expose the flaws in our current reward system and show that there are other ways we can build ourselves lives that have purpose and genuine meaning.
People from the past might have been overly fond of hitting each other with swords and dying of the plague, but they did have some flashes of genius. An underlying concept throughout much of the world’s philosophy is that of controlling one’s emotions and desires:
- the Stoics believed that anticipation and worrying about the future was the source of all anxiety
- the Buddha taught that suffering comes from our own minds, and even when we feel pleasure, we are never content.
- Taoists practiced wu wei – non-action, which is the world’s laziest philosophy, encouraging people to set aside their hopes and fears, to stop trying and just do. This is the same as the modern psychological theory of “flow state” or “being in the zone.”
We’ve established the problem, and that there are solutions. All that remains is to ask ourselves “How does this help us make a better life?”
We shouldn’t get rid of all of our aims in life, but we should try to change them from specific extrinsic aims, like becoming a millionaire or getting a career as a famous singer, to broader, more personal goals, such as making a living doing what you are good at [things we are good at and things we enjoy are incredibly similar] or trying to live a life that is authentic to who you are.
To end, I want to leave you with a question to think on: Who’s happier – the person who’s spent their life doing what they enjoy, or the celebrity sitting in their multi-million pound mansion with a lifetime of regrets?
Guy Reynolds is a graduate of Cardiff University with a BA in Ancient History and an MA in Ancient and Medieval Warfare. Guy’s plan is to gain his doctorate and spend his life studying increasingly niche areas of history. Guy has lots of experience working with wild animals, from Falconry Centres to Wetherspoons, and he loves anything to do with books.
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