Western societies have a huge problem when it comes to living a meaningful life. In the last fifty years we’ve seen two huge shifts further towards individualism, first with the swinging sixties, and then again with the have-it-all greed-is-good eighties. If you ask all but the very old, most folk today will say that living a good life means being able to do what you want, having plenty of good experiences, having friends, etc. This is pretty different from a couple of generations ago when lots of people would surely have used elevated phrases like “pillar of the community” and “a real gentleman”. Those ideas were about service to others. Now, we tend to define success as being something that I as an individual got out of life. We live in an age where most of us, not just the wealthy and able few, believe we have a shot at success and riches. (I’m not complaining about this, just pointing it out.)
Alongside these changes, and in seeming harmony with them, we’ve shifted to an ever more hedonistic idea of success. Positive thinking has all but taken over in the USA, and the take-over is underway in Europe and Australia too. The prescription of antidepressants is rising at an alarming rate, and of course we’ve all seen the self-help books. We seem to have adopted the unspoken assumption that the way to live a successful life — a good life — is to cram it full of happy moods. We seem to want to make any unpleasant emotion illegal.
This is bonkers. Idiocy. Nonsense on stilts. To start with, just at the level of logic, we only experience and evaluate experiences by contrast with other experiences. Trying to have happy without sad is like trying to have up without down, light without dark, or inside without outside. Our evaluations are based on context. When someone lights a candle in a completely dark room, we say the room is brighter and better now. If we walk from a sunny street into a candle-lit room we complain that we’ve gone temporarily blind. This is how your nervous system is wired. Something similar is true of moods. We mostly notice changes, not things that stay the same. This phenomenon has been written about many hundreds of times under the label of ‘the hedonic treadmill’.
The real problem comes when we see these two ideals together. When we consider that most of us would like to be a great success in life and to be constantly happy and cheerful. We know deep down this is crap. The kid who is going to be a great football player knows he’s going to have some very frustrating games along the way. The young woman studying to be a doctor knows that there are many nights of hard work in front of her. We all know that pretty much any goal worth achieving is going to require a bit of effort. We might get tired, bored or frustrated along the way, but it’ll be worth it in the long run because we’ll have even greater rewards in future. But deep down is the operative phrase.
The failure to admit this openly is the great lie of modern Western civilisation. We are to believe that we can have anything we want — to be rich, powerful, successful, and famous — and that we also deserve to have all the pleasant experiences we want along the way. Of course such a lie fits perfectly with the goals of the advertisers who would have you buy their latest quick-fix pill. Just think about the rise of the ‘fat blocker’ pills like orlistat. The message is clear enough. Go on eating like a king, but this pill will allow you to have the cover-model body you so want. You can have it all.
Here’s the truth. Living a good life and achieving our goals takes effort and exposes us to sensations and emotions we don’t like. We might do this because we hope we will get to feel positive feelings like satisfaction later on.
We might all know this deep down, but it’s worth saying anyway. We need to remind ourselves of this regularly so as to inoculate ourselves against the dominant meme that we should all be happy and cheerful and ecstatic the whole time, and that if we’re not, there’s something wrong with us.
And it’s not just for our own success that we should consider putting up with unhappy feelings and unpleasant experiences.
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”― George Bernard Shaw
How do we put this wonderful philosophical insight into practical use? We need to build into ourselves an ability to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in service of loftier values and goals. We need to become psychologically flexible. We need to become resilient. We need to become brave.
Bravery isn’t a lack of fear. It’s being able to carry on in the face of fear.
Luckily philosophers and religious leaders started work on this problem well over two thousand years ago, and some of the techniques they developed have recently been validated by modern science.
You’ve probably heard of one of them. It’s called mindfulness meditation. It was invented in India, long long ago, and described and codified by the Buddha. The idea is simple enough. You spend a bit of time training your mind to pay attention to the here and now, getting better at pulling yourself back each time your mind wanders off topic, and, crucially, you pay attention to whatever’s happening in the here and now with acceptance and equanimity. That doesn’t mean you become some incredibly laid back hippie with a slogan like “just let it happen man”. It doesn’t mean you lose your drive or focus. Acceptance means fully accepting that this is what’s happening. Without defence. When we really don’t want a certain emotion or sensation or thought, we set up such mental defences that we seem to be able to ignore it, but in fact, we’re usually making it a bigger deal. It takes on extra meaning and significance. It must be bad because I always avoid it so assiduously. The mindful attitude is to allow the experience, not avoid it. Bring curiosity to it. Find out, really and properly what you’ve been avoiding.
In the last decade there has been an explosion in solid scientific studies showing that people who are mindful in this sense have better chances of doing really difficult things like giving up smoking. At the Association of Contextual Behavioural Science World Conference last week, Dr Jonathan Bricker reported that research participants who said they were willing to have a cigarette craving and still not smoke were subsequently shown to be 17 times as likely to give up. That’s precisely what mindfulness meditation would train us to do. You can’t get rid of the craving. But we also don’t have to let it take over. We can learn to have the feeling — to be willing to have the feeling.
All this raises a question, of course. If I allow myself to have unpleasant emotions and experiences, won’t I be unhappy? There’s actually a lot of debate about what really predicts how happy someone is, overall. Psychologists have revived (and now actively debate) the classical philosophical idea of eudaimonia. We might translate it as a flourishing form of life. You might prefer ‘successful’ so long as we mean successful at living not just financially successful. At least since Socrates, Western philosophy and science has recurrently asserted that the simple pursuit of happy moods (hedonism) is insufficient for being happy overall in life. The claim is that people who are really happy with their lives, who are protected from depression, and so on, are those who have a sense of meaning in their lives. They’re not the people who merely chase moment-to-moment happy moods. The science is still far from settled, but that’s kind of the point. It certainly doesn’t seem to be a guarantee that a happy life is made by simply trying to be maximally happy in each hour of that life.
So much for the theory. How do you do this stuff?
Just start doing it
Right away, you can just try to notice that next time you have a strong desire, maybe a craving for chips or chocolate, if you just let that craving be, just watch it, with curiosity, it’ll very often subside after a while on its own. This observation is well captured in the phrase “this too will pass,” but remember you’re not trying to do anything to it. You just observe. The craving gets rid of itself, often. And if, after quite a few minutes it still hasn’t gone, then perhaps this time would be the right time to enjoy some chocolate!
Get better at it
You’re much more likely to be able to run to catch a bus if you happen to spend parts of the week doing interval training on the local running track. The same goes for your brain. If you spend periods of time training yourself to guide your attention and cultivating an attitude of acceptance, you’ll find you can rely on those skills when you need them in real life. And you know what, meditation ain’t just for hippies any more. Here’s a video with Google’s Bill Duane talking about his experience with meditation.
Has that whet your appetite? So how you do try meditation?
Here are three YouTube videos for you to choose from, each of which gives basic instructions to get you into meditation. They each have advantages and disadvantages. You might hate the tone of one, but enjoy the others. Try them.
First up, David Nichtern, giving simple and easy-to-follow instructions. There’s no in-depth discussion here, just straight forward instructions.
Second, Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn introducing employees at Google to meditation. This video is longer, and talks a bit about the background from Dr Kabat-Zinn’s scientific point of view.
This last video is from one of my all time favourite teachers. Alan Watts called himself a ‘spiritual entertainer’. This talk (it’s really an audio recording someone’s stuck on YouTube with some cheesy visuals) does a great job of cutting through all the spiritual mumbo jumbo about the benefits of meditation.