“Ask yourself if you are happy and you cease to be so.” So said the nineteenth century philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill. Give it a go! As soon as we go to look for it, it proves illusive. Even if we were in some moment of real joy.
How are we ever to achieve satisfaction if we cannot pin its slippery figure down. It’s ironic that in this age that devotes itself to selling satisfaction in a car, the right holiday or well-branded footwear. But yet John Stuart Mill’s words still ring true, regardless of what we have, we are not content.
As we start to face the lifting of lockdown, how many of us are talking about finally being able to be happy as we can once again venture out to the wider world. So will we be? Will the lifting of lockdown return a smile to the face of the world.
Being able to reach out and hug those we love will for sure lift spirits, but what of everything else? The coffee shop? The clothing outlets? The sporting events? Happiness and contentment are deferred to another day. Though this is about much more that the lifting of lockdown.
Are we setting ourselves up for a fall?
The glass of wine weaves its magic in its first sip – but where do we go thereafter. It doesn’t get any better, whether we paid £5 or £50 for the bottle. The dopamine release is no greater than after that first taste, regardless of how many glasses (or bottles) we consume thereafter.
You can want something with every fibre of your body, but once you have it the only thing left is to want another or more. One of the most striking memories of my first weeks at work in my twenties was how much people talked about planning their holidays. Everything was about the anticipation of two weeks release under the sun somewhere. This made me sad, it still does. This idea of deferring the good-times moved me profoundly. Noting that we are talking mid-eighties here, so there were definitely less pleasure offering distractions.
Lockdown and all it brought is without doubt a punishment for essentially social animals. On the same note though, its lifting is no panacea. We are still deferring happiness.
Like someone whose much awaited holiday heads quickly south by poor weather or lost-luggage, what if those steps back into the world do not prove to satisfy as anticipated.
The shackles of our expectation
When I am teaching meditation practice for clients, how often do I hear people report not getting the “right experience” or outcome. It is often the case that enter the meditation with an expectation. This might be a good memory of a previous attempt, or something they have heard or believe about the experience. These set the bar for what follows.
Expectation sets an objective when really we are doing no more that learning to experience without judgement. To sit with what happens and how it is. Expectation denies us the richness of the moment. It shackles and constrains experience. As with John Stuart Mill’s happiness we are suddenly consumed in the search for the illusive.
This plays out throughout life. The wrong expectation gives rise to the wrong emotion. And from here, the wrong behaviour.
Knowing the truths
As most of my mindfulness clients are aware I am prone to cross-referring to some elements of its Buddhist foundations. In this case, I want to draw in what The Buddha called “The Four Noble Truths” – see image below.
These are based on a translation of the Pali word dukka which is popularly translated as suffering. Whilst this interpretation is very laudable, it can be a difficult concept to share with a
general everyday audience, particularly in the workplace. I found my insight listening to a talk by Joseph Goldstein, he outline the less than exact translation, explaining to his audience it was better interpreted as “unsatisfactory”. This is where the ducks lined up for me. At least in the sense of a means of explaining to others.
Whether one is sympathetic to the idea or not, I think it is a hard for people to grasp the idea of being the architects of their own suffering. But substitute unsatisfactory or unreasonable and it no longer seems such a stretch.
Suddenly insight can unfold. Of course, we all do things that are unsatisfactory. The western capitalist economy could not flourish without our lack of satisfaction. We always need one more. Or the next model. We are tied into the cycle.
A cycle not million miles from another idea, that of samsara. Being trapped in the cycle of birth and rebirth in the material world. Trapped by goods and chattels of worldly pleasure. Tied into the cycle of product upgrade or rebranding. Trapped in the cycles of style we call this season.
The challenge is to recognise the cycle of unsatisfactory-ness, when we become aware, we have a choice. No amount of cycling within our equivalent of samsara will deliver satisfaction. No amount of searching will find happiness.
We are invited by the four noble truths to find a different path. One of really BEING. One where our experience might still sometimes be unsatisfactory, but we have a choice to step free of it and change. This is a place built upon non-judgemental awareness. Seeing things without the delusions of our expectation and ambition.
Start here. Start now. The journey may be a long one, but we are only ever here. We never anywhere other than where we take our next step. In that step is nirvana. Happiness and contentment can only reside wherever we are, it is not for deferring.
So dear reader, be careful what you wish for, it might well not live up to your expectation!