Getting off the Hedonic Treadmill: Buddhism

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As humans we spend most of our lives in a state of perpetual craving and desire. We land a big promotion at work, but soon fantasize about continuing to move up the corporate ladder. We become consumed by discontent and dissatisfaction as we constantly compare our social standing to that of our peers.  Wealth, status and power are engrained in our cultural ethos. However, all these pursuits are elusive. The temporary pleasure that we receive from these aims quickly fades as we relentlessly try to fill the void.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the ‘hedonic treadmill’ (also known as the hedonic adaptation).  The concept states that despite the events we experience (positive or negative), we always revert back to our ‘baseline’ level of contentment or happiness. While we may feel initial euphoria after experiencing something pleasurable, diminishing returns kicks in and we soon crave for more. Look at the surprising fortune of lottery winners. Many think that if only I could I win the lottery than surely all my problems could be solved. They imagine this would enable them to live a carefree life of eternal bliss. Despite these fantasies, this reality is quite different. One study demonstrated that lottery winners were not any happier than those who did not win the lottery 18 months after wining. The excitement and dopamine rush that you once felt when you won soon fades. Moreover, the grand lifestyle that you become accustomed to inhibits you from finding joy in the everyday mundane aspects of life. The same is true of attaining other milestones in life such as winning a championship or getting a promotion.

Yuval Noah Harari summarizes this sentiment in his book Sapiens,

When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things such as pain. As long as pain continues we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify.

As I argued in my previous article, our desire for pleasure makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.  Humans need a signal to motivate them to ensure their survival, to eat, to reproduce  pass on their genes to the next generation.  Yet our inability to detach from pleasure and our longing for more is one of the main causes of human misery. It is synonymous to being on a treadmill, running faster and faster, yet going nowhere.

So the question remains – how does one end this cycle of discontent and get off the ‘hedonic treadmill’? One piece of wisdom comes from the Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. He taught that we ought to accept things as they are without craving. Refrain from immediate intuitive judgements about our experience, and let things be as they will be. For instance, if we experience something pleasant be cognizant of the fleeting nature of this emotion and do not be distressed when it passes.

To achieve this state of mind the Buddha developed a set of mediation techniques which were aimed at allowing one to be aware of the contents of their consciousness and focus on the present moment. While it comes in many forms the most common form of meditation is ‘mindfulness meditation’ in which one pays attention to their present experience using the breath as an anchor. One will quickly realize the inherent chaos and noise in their minds. In meditation the task is straight forward, acknowledge the thought and return back to the breath. However, as many who have attempted meditation know it is far too easy to get distracted and lost in thought.

What this practice allows us to do is to detach from our thoughts, emotions and yearnings. It enables us to see the futility of our efforts to intensify or extend pleasure. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal of these meditation techniques is to achieve a state called ‘enlightenment’.  Enlightenment is a state of mind in which an individual is liberated from the ego, the constant ‘mental chatter’ and from the cognitive and emotional distortions that are so pervasive in our day to day experience. As Joseph Goldstein states, it is “the mind of non-clinging, non-fixation, nonattachment to anything at all. It’s the mind of open groundlessness.” Attaining enlightenment doesn’t require us to achieve a particular goal or chase after an experience. Rather, it is available to us when our minds are grounded in the present moment, and we are liberated from our ego.

Going forward, I will refrain from discussing the metaphysical or religious aspects of Buddhism, but focus mainly on the key aspects of the Buddhist doctrine from a naturalistic or scientific paradigm. Moreover, I want to demystify these concepts and ideas and ground them in the scientific literature.  In in my next article I will focus on what science is saying about mindfulness meditation.

Till next time,

AA

Embracing the Art of Play

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We often look back on our childhood with great reverence and adoration. A time when we were not yet burdened with the responsibilities and demands of adulthood. When the only limitations and boundaries we faced were the limits of our imagination.

Learning about the world and experiencing things for the first time we were often in a perpetual state of awe and wonder. A state of play.

This essence of euphoria and enjoyment for the world however starts to fade as we transition into adulthood. We are no longer able to find joy and awe in the mundane aspects of everyday life.

Life transforms into something that must be taken seriously, and the idea of play becomes trivialized. Something we only feel justified engaging in if we have spare time after completing our work, responsibilities and obligations.

Furthermore, we are told that time is money and conflate ‘busyness’ with importance. Thus, we feel guilty in indulging in leisure or any sort of ‘unproductive’ activity.

Every minute must be planned and calculated. No time must be wasted.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Pexels.com

Instrumental vs. Intrinsic Values

We can divide our motivations for pursuing certain activities/things into two categories – instrumental and intrinsic values. 

Instrumental value is something that we pursue to achieve some other goal. To illustrate this point, we can look at our incentives for work. Many of us work not because we enjoy doing so[1] but rather out of necessity – to earn a living and survive.  Other examples of instrumental thinking include:

  • Getting an education to get a good job;
  • Working a prestigious career because it brings you high status;
  • Jogging for the health benefits it brings you.

I want to emphasize that these are all valid reasons for pursuing worthy goals. The point is however is that they are not done for sake of themselves. They are simply means to ends.

The logic is, only after achieving X {dream job, promotion, a certain salary, marriage etc.} I can be content. Happiness is deferred to the future.

On the other hand, intrinsic value is something that is appreciated in and of itself. These are the core reasons why we pursue certain goals. One way to get at what is intrinsically valuable is to ask a series of questions which get at the root cause of your motivations.

Suppose your life is made up of things you do for the sake of something else — you do A in order to get B, and you do B only to get C, and so on. Therefore A has no value in itself; its value lies in the B. But B has no value in itself: that value lies in the C. Perhaps we eventually encounter something — call it Z — that’s valuable for what it is in itself, and not for anything else.

Mark Rowlands, Tennis with Plato

For Aristotle, his notion of eudaimonia, roughly translated as happiness or human flourishing, is something that has intrinsic value. Things such as having a successful career where one enjoys their work or having financial freedom are sought after because they allow for one to attain happiness.

Let us look at some other examples:


The Rise of Machines

So how does this tie into some of the current issues we face today?

The prominent sociologist Max Weber claimed that modern societies were trapped in an ‘iron cage’ of rationalization. With the loss of traditional values and social ties, the modern era is governed by the ethic of efficiency and rationality.

The ideal of material progress has allowed us to create effective and innovative corporations and bureaucracies which have enabled significant increases in our living standards. However, it has come at the cost of the stripping away of human sympathy, emotion and dignity.  We are transformed into numbers on a spreadsheet, cogs in the machine and mere instruments required to keep the system running.

Consequently, we become more akin to robots or machines than sentient human beings.  The intrinsic value and dignity as a human being is all but lost.

Weber’s critique of modern society is that it is governed by instrumental reason and utilitarian values.  For the sake of greater efficiency and productivity, we transform human activity and interactions into something measurable and quantifiable. Social media fosters intense competition for status as we chase after more likes, comments and shares then our peers.  

A consequence of this mode of existence is that our relationship to the world becomes primarily extractive. Our focus becomes consuming or having things rather then experiencing them in and of itself.

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Reclaiming Play

It’s a cliché in our culture to hear the phrase ‘do what you love’, what does that even mean?

On a deeper level I think it is connected to play. We play when are deeply engaged in something because we truly enjoy it, irrespective of any reward or social benefit it may bring us. It awakens us to the present moment.

 Diane Ackerman in her book Deep Play discusses moments of play when we are completely immersed in the moment. It bears resemblance to the concept of flow which I have written about before.  She writes,

Deep play arises in such moments of intense enjoyment, focus, control, creativity, timelessness, confidence, volition, lack of self-awareness (hence transcendence) while doing things intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding for their own sake…It feels cleansing because when acting and thinking becomes one, there is no room left for other thoughts.

Diane Ackerman – Deep Play

This is not to say we must detach from our obligations and responsibilities as adults. Rather, it is to emphasize the importance of carving out a space or time to immerse yourself in play. A space where you can temporarily forget about expectations and the world around you.

Where you can feel alive.

When you can to let go, be in the present and be free.

Photo by Daryl Wilkerson Jr on Pexels.com

Play, you see, in the sense that I am using it is a musical thing. It is a dance. It is an expression of delight

Alan Watts

[1] According to a 2017 global Gallup poll, 85% of workers surveyed were not engaged or actively disengaged at work.

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Mental Health in a Time of Crisis: An Interview with Your Mind Matters

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In some earlier blog posts I have written about the rising concern of the mental health crisis in modern societies. In particular, I argued that the malaise and discontent we experience in our culture can be partially attributed to the individualism and consumerism that is promoted and admired in the West.

On a broad level, our sense ‘common purpose’ has fractured, as we have become more polarized and divided by our politics and individual differences. The social glue that once held us together has begun to fade.

Modern societies are facing a set of interwoven crises which Professor John Vervaeke says are symptoms of our loss of meaning and connection to the world, and to others. We’ve seen the following mental health issues scattered through the news headlines over the past few years. [1]

These existing issues of course will be compounded by the current COVID-19 pandemic.

So, how can we cope during this difficult time? What insights can we learn from ancient wisdom and modern psychology?

I asked Vanessa from the mental health-based organization Your Mind Matters for some clarity. Part 1 of the interview is recorded below.  

 1. Tell me a bit about your organization and how you got started.

Your Mind Matters is a non-profit organization and mental health platform for mental health awareness, education and support. We provide information and resources to educate people about mental illness and provide peer support to individuals struggling, particularly youth.

I started it when I was in my undergrad at the University of Toronto and I was really struggling with mental illness and my own mental health problems and saw that so many others around me were as well. I then decided to start a student group on campus to raise awareness, inform students about mental illness and the prevalence for youth especially in a university setting, and provide resources on campus relating to mental health.

In doing this, I realized how important this work is and decided to practice mental health advocacy beyond university, so I turned Your Mind Matters from a student mental health awareness club into a non-profit organization.

It goes without saying, but my own struggles with mental illness fueled my passion for mental health advocacy and pushed me to start this organization.

Although mental illness sometimes knocks me down and pushes me around, it inspires me to make a change and keep pushing forward despite it all. It also keeps me going knowing how many people out there are struggling, and my own experiences have made me realize how hard it is and I never want people to feel that way, so I’ve decided to do what I can to help others.


2. In my personal experience, a lot of internal tension comes when you act in a way that does not align with your core values. What does the concept of authenticity mean for you, and how can we live a life that is congruent with our deepest belief?

Authenticity is so important to me and something I value very deeply on a personal level. To me, authenticity is stripping yourself down and taking off the mask and all those external layers and getting to the root and true essence of who you are, unapologetically and without shame or fear.

Think of it like an onion: you peel the layers one at a time and it makes you cry. But, when you strip all those layers and get to the root of who you are, you’ll find our who you are at its core and hopefully learn to accept and love that person underneath all the layers.

Authenticity and to be fully yourself is the most vulnerable form of bravery, but to me it’s the only option. It means knowing who you are and what you stand for and not straying from it or compromising yourself or your values. It’s having a clear sense of what your values are and upholding them however and whenever you can. To live a life that is congruent with our deepest belief, we first need to dig deep and learn about ourselves.

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

We need to fully understand what these beliefs are and why we have them. We need to discover our intentions and our deeply rooted core beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. And then we need to decide how we’re going to live a life that is congruent with our beliefs. It means doing things for yourself and not fearing judgment or ridicule and letting go of shame and guilt. Some people will not agree with us or like us for who we are, but that is okay. It is better to be who we are than to transform into someone we’re not just to satisfy someone else.

This means getting to know yourself and liking the person you are and then it’s being that person as much as you possibly can. It requires not really caring what anyone else thinks because your foundation is so strong and your values are so clear and concrete that no one can shake the core of who you are.

Authenticity is doing things because we’re intrinsically motivated, not extrinsically motivated. It’s not having ulterior motives except being who we are and doing what we believe in on a fundamental level. It’s saying, “this is me, take it or leave it” and not caring if they “leave it” because you know that it’s their loss and that decision is more about them than it’s about you.

Being authentic is so hard these days and not easy to come across, but being an authentic person is such a valuable and coveted feat. There’s something so empowering, so powerful and so attractive about someone who knows who they are and sticks to it at all costs. We do this by learning to love ourselves and the person we see in the mirror and then being as much of that person as we can no matter what.

To use another metaphor: it’s like a tree with roots that run so deep and that are extensively intricate and no matter how hard you try and shake the tree, it will not move. It is so strongly rooted and firmly planted in the ground that no external factors can shake it. That’s authenticity to me.

Having such a strong foundation that no one and nothing can shake. When you have roots that strong, it’s hard to be inauthentic. I think it’s important that we start appreciating authenticity as being the strength that it is, because it’s not seen often but it is needed so badly to create a world of more honesty, compassion and deeply rooted and upheld values.

There’s something so empowering, so powerful and so attractive about someone who knows who they are and sticks to it at all costs. We do this by learning to love ourselves and the person we see in the mirror and then being as much of that person as we can no matter what.


3. Social media has us constantly comparing ourselves to others. It is easy to fall into the trap of judging our lives and our accomplishments in comparison with our peers. Do you have any advice on how we can be more accepting and kinder to ourselves?

As a disclaimer, I’d like to state that I should not be the authority on this topic because I absolutely am one to fall into the trap of comparison via social media. However, it’s something I am trying to unlearn. Self-compassion and acceptance are two big focal points of most of my therapy sessions and have probably become the overarching theme in most of them.

One thing I learned and have implemented that’s pretty life changing is talking to myself the same way I’d talk to a friend. It’s not easy, but if you think of it I’m pretty sure you’ve said some pretty mean things to yourself that you’d almost never say to a friend or someone you love. So then the question is, why do we say these things to ourselves? We need to start holding ourselves up to the same standard and treating ourselves with the same love and respect as we treat those we love.

I also think learning to forgive ourselves is an important part of this equation. We tend to be really hard on ourselves and are our own worst critics. It’s important to remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can with what we have and know and that’s enough. We’re bound to make mistakes and be imperfect. What matters is that we learn from them and move on. Let yourself let go of the idea that you are inferior or less-than for whatever made up reason you’ve concocted in your head.

Photo by Cristian Dina on Pexels.com

Also, a note about social media: it’s all fake and nothing is at is seems. Trust me, I used to post nicely filtered pictures of me travelling and eating and acting all happy and like I was “living my best life” (a myth that I will not get into right now because then I’d never stop talking) when really on the inside I was hurting so deeply. It’s important to note that what’s on social media doesn’t actually represent people’s real lives at all and it’s harmful to think it does. The grass isn’t greener on the other side, it’s a filter. And one last thing while we’re on this topic: comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t do it.

You can compare yourself today to who you were yesterday and that’s it. Comparing yourself not only to someone you’re not but someone you’re only seeing little curated and filtered snippets of through a screen is a recipe for unhappiness and low self-esteem. Look in the mirror often and learn to like what you see (and I’m not just talking about looks). Look inward. That’s where you find love and acceptance and self-compassion. Don’t expect anyone else to do this work for you.

I also think learning to forgive ourselves is an important part of this equation. We tend to be really hard on ourselves and are our own worst critics. It’s important to remind ourselves that we’re doing the best we can with what we have and know and that’s enough.


[1] Of note, I won’t get into the statistics here, but I will link to the relevant studies if your interested that show these trends.