Early in my life, as I lay in bed in the brief dreamy but not dreaming moments before sleep, I’d think up a short list of things I wanted. These were experiences or objects or abilities I believed might make me happier — improve my life in some significant and permanent way. The list included learning to drive a car, having a girlfriend, being as good in science as my friend Steve — those sorts of things.
While I never became the world-famous scientist Steve Henikoff is, I achieved much of value both on and off the lists I imagined when I was 10 or 15. Later the practice of making nighttime aims fell away. No, I didn’t get A’s in all my school work or win every girl I fancied, but few people do.
I discovered goals on a list are a bit like the candy in a PEZ dispenser. The candy is spring-loaded into its container. As soon as you remove the piece at the top, another piece is pushed up to take its place. So long as the dispenser holds more candy, one morsel is replaced by the next. Just so, as soon as you check-off an item on your goal list, another pops to the top.
We don’t seem to remain satisfied. You eat a meal, but before long you get hungry again. You have sex, but, however wonderful, you won’t remain ecstatic forever. You eat a piece of chocolate, but it’s not so fulfilling as to satiate you. More is usually required. Robert Wright, the Princeton psychologist, talks about this in his lectures on the subject of Buddhist psychology. Moreover, he says, this is part of the reason people are so often dissatisfied with the way things are.
The Buddhists call the experience (and much worse catastrophes) dukkha or suffering. To them dukkha is the central part of life. In their view, emotional pain is caused by grasping for things we don’t possess, the endless wish for fame or money or acclaim we don’t have, or holding tightly to those same things for fear of losing them. The Buddhists contend our misconception of how to live contributes to dissatisfaction and anxiety. They point to a path away from unhappiness and toward acceptance instead of grasping, contentment with our lot in life, and living in the moment. In effect, they tell us we are trying to fill up a pail with a large hole in it and can never make our lives whole in this way.
There should be no surprise people make poor choices of how to live. We see it all the time in acquaintances, but perhaps less often in ourselves. Research concludes we are not good at knowing in advance what things or activities will offer happiness — give some lasting satisfaction. In fact, psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Charles Wilson coined a phrase for this: “miswanting” or desiring things that won’t provide the emotional benefit we expect. Dukkha here we come.
Perhaps even worse, because the mind drifts so easily to what is wrong in life, we try to keep busy and distract ourselves. We fail to take time to focus on the problem of “miswanting” or any other self-inflicted emotional wound. We stay on the treadmill of misguidedness, heading in a direction that hasn’t worked in the past and probably won’t work in the future. Kate Murphy describes our discomfort with quiet thought in a New York Times article of July 25, 2014. Rather than the painful job of self-reflection, we choose to stay too busy to think, ignore how we are hurting ourselves, and don’t consider a big change of direction.
Look around you. Just about everyone wants more money, a more satisfying intimate relationship, a better residence in a new place, a fancier phone, different clothes, a better job, a nicer office; but soon after an item on the list is achieved dissatisfaction returns.
Robert Wright says this is no accident. Indeed, he points to the work of evolutionary psychologists who believe evolution is the culprit behind our discontent, broadly speaking. He is not trying to make light of the genuine wrongs in the world, but rather to look at why human existence is generally so difficult — even for those who are not suffering from stretches of terrible luck or misfortune.
Wright uses food and sex as examples in the set of lectures he produced for Coursera, the free online source of university level education from some of the best instructors in the world. Wright says evolution (or Mother Nature) has set us up to be unsatisfied much of the time.
Remember the chocolate? Wright states if you are a chocolate lover, at the end of having a bite you are going to want more. Your satisfaction is temporary. Why is this? Evolutionary psychologists like Wright believe our distant ancestors (early men and women) discovered fruit was sweet and tasty. Those who enjoyed and ate it regularly were more likely to survive than those who either couldn’t find any fruit, didn’t care for it, or didn’t seek more. The survivors produced children who had the same genetic makeup and also enjoyed sweet things. In other words, evolution favored those who ate (and eventually learned to grow) fruit.
The twist in the story came when candy was created in India, over two centuries ago. Later on, man would find all sorts of ways to add sugar to his diet and the products sold in groceries. The irony of this survival story is that the same affinity for sweetness, once widely helpful to our distant progenitors’ survival, now contributes to a USA obesity epidemic.
Now think about sex. Ancient humans who had sex one time only and were so overwhelmed and permanently fulfilled by the experience aren’t our ancestors. Had everyone been like them our species would be extinct. Indeed, we can assume the genetic line of those who had little interest in sex vanished. We are the progeny of a group of humans who enjoyed sex, weren’t perpetually fulfilled by it, and kept looking for more sexual opportunities, as most of us do. For the same evolutionary reasons, we are alive because those primitive humans also had feelings of affection toward mates and children, wanted to protect them, and thus increased the chance the kids would live to reproduce themselves.
In our twenty-first century world we continue to pair with others to survive, mutually protect each other, and teach our children how to manage the same life project. You might think you are making money just to get a nicer car or a bigger apartment, but the evolutionary scientists would say you are preoccupied with such things because signs of status and power made our ancestors more appealing as mates. Those who were more desirable, more able to protect their mates, and thought more physically fit had an increased chance of passing forward their genetic “stuff” to another generation.
If you believe men preoccupied with “hot” women are shallow, remember that appearance drew our ancient ancestors to one another. Those who chose lovers who looked healthy — capable of bearing and nursing children in the case of females — were more likely to reproduce and raise kids who grew to do the same thing. Thus, it became automatic for people to consider surface qualities. We come by our shallowness honestly! Mother Nature is the real culprit.
Wright makes the point that the evolutionary process aims at only one thing: getting your genetic material into the world of the future. Evolution is not inclined to make us happy.
Indeed, Mother Nature sometimes fools us into doing things that aren’t going to make us anything but miserable. Consider how desperate we can become thinking the next job, promotion, or mate will generate everlasting bliss. Alas, once achieved, the satisfaction and happiness are only temporary. Another piece of PEZ pops to the top of the PEZ dispenser and we expect the next target will be the key to joy.
Sometimes the characteristics fostered by evolution are terrific. They have, after all, kept our species alive. Curiosity, competitiveness, and intelligence are great (leading to medical progress, higher living standards, and the Internet), but too often our evolutionary residue contributes to weapons of mass destruction and the self-protective jealousies or ethnic/racial hatreds we find all over our troubled world. Again, individual men and women are making some very bad decisions, but Mother Nature (aka evolution) is complicit.
If you put the Buddhist and evolutionary perspectives together, you get something like this. I’ve oversimplified what follows, but I think you will get the idea. The Buddhist view will be in bold print, followed by the evolutionary explanation:
We get too attached to things. Our ancestors needed things (tools, food, shelter, etc.) to survive.
We are afraid of losing things. Same as above.
We grasp for what we don’t already possess. Appearance, status, and power increase our chances in the mating game.
We fret about the future. Early humans who anticipated difficulties had a better chance of ensuring survival.
Just as we work hard to acquire things, we try to get and keep the most desirable mate. We are programmed to look for healthy partners to increase our chances of creating, nurturing and protecting a new generation.
We get attached to people and it pains us when we lose them. Our ancestors formed groups for self-protection and survival. Evolution contributed to our desire for human contact, affection, and reliance upon others.
Most of us never figure out the “PEZ dispenser” nature of life: that the things we want won’t make much permanent difference (unless they are healthy food, protective shelter, and other essentials), whatever temporary good feeling they generate. We’d be better off accepting the mantra-laden Rolling Stones song, (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, as the matrix of living. Once realizing this, Wright and the Buddhists say, you can begin to change your personal path in the direction of more acceptance, less grasping, and reduced concern with either gaining what you want or losing what you control. You will be less worried and dissatisfied, more able to take joy from things as they are or at least accept whatever happens. No one suggests this path is easy, but the alternative will make your life worse.
Should you believe that is a negative message, here is some news. Those Buddhist monks who are expert meditators are among the happiest people on the planet — so brain research tells us. Meanwhile, the USA, a land of wealth, is only tied for 14th in overall “thriving,” with just 57% of us describing ourselves in that way.* Nor do you need a religious conversion to Buddhism to improve your sense of well-being from moment to moment. But most of us benefit by becoming less grasping and attached — reaching for a permanent solution to existence when the problem is the reaching itself and the expectation that such a solution is possible.
So what do you do with all the above to make your life better? Here is a start. Make a list of the things you pursued in your life: material objects, status, money, romance, children, and so forth. Then ask yourself how much lasting happiness each one gave you once it was achieved. If you have been “miswanting,” maybe it is time to stop the treadmill, get off, and reconsider the path you are on.
Think about it.
*Click to see the complete 2010 Gallup Global Wellbeing Ratings. One-hundred-fifty-five countries are included.
The top photo is Mick Jagger. The second image is a Hello Kitty PEZ dispenser, taken by Deborah Austin. The Chocolate photo is the work of André Karwath. It is followed by a picture of Buddhist Art taken in Sri lanka. Finally, Gustav Klimt’s Der Kuss (The Kiss). All but the first of these are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.