I read an article from the Huffington Post this morning in which the author discusses the postmodern dilemma: how we can live in a time in which we have better, easier lives than in any other period in history and yet our society is characterized by a pervasive malaise and sense of meaninglessness. Andrew Z. Cohen has decided that it is almost amoral for us, as a society, to not be happy, considering how fortunate we are. He has taken his show on the road, lecturing to people about this topic and insisting that we be grateful and happy. But he doesn’t recommend how, exactly, we go about this.
It seems to me that pointing out all of the reasons why we should be happy, could actually increase the depression of those who are feeling this sense of meaninglessness. If we have everything that we could possibly want, and we’re still unhappy, there’s really no hope for improvement.
I’ve been thinking that perhaps the cause of our societal malaise is not a lack of gratitude for all that we have, but that, in fact, having so much may actually be the source of our discontent.
You have, undoubtedly, encountered people who have traveled to third world countries and returned with stories about how happy the people there were, in spite of having next to nothing. Studies have shown that, beyond a certain level of essential life requirements (food, shelter, health, etc.) having more doesn’t actually improve quality of life or happiness.
On the other hand, one factor that has been shown to cause dissatisfaction is exposure to others who have a higher standard of living than we do. While the assumption may be that if we had what the others that we are observing had, then we would be happier, in fact, it seems that the real cause of discontent is not lacking the types of things that others have, but the internal, unfavorable comparison of ourselves to them.
I suspect that the same principle may apply to non-material things as well: things such as thoughts, and habits, and time. We have a tendency, in our society, to be extremely busy. We commit to more things that we can reasonably get done and no matter how much we manage to accomplish, we always feel a little bit disappointed that we weren’t able to somehow do more.
Our minds are constantly churning with thoughts and judgments and feelings. When we take time to sit and meditate it can be a tremendous struggle to let go of that inner dialogue even for a few minutes at a time.
We develop behaviors that become comfortable because they are familiar, and they become so ingrained that we continue to do them even when they no longer serve us, or if we no longer like them or want to do them.
They say that nature abhors a vacuum and I think that it is human nature to fill up our space – whether that space be physical, emotional, or temporal – with stuff. But happiness and meaning will never be found as a part of this process.
In fact, the only thing that seems to consistently help people to feel more fulfilled is to willingly clear out some of this “stuff” (whether that be material things, time commitments, habitual behaviors or feelings) to make space for more meaningful activities and relationships.
Anyone who has spent any time meditating knows how difficult this can be to do. The mind wanders, thoughts trigger feelings, and we’re off on a story of our own making. But being able to recognize this process, and bring the mind back to the breath, can be a tremendous relief.
One tradition of Tibetan Buddhism recommends starting a meditation session with a prayer that begins, “I take refuge in the Buddhas (the enlightened ones), the Dharma (the teachings), and the Sangha (the spiritual community)…” I like to think of meditation as refuge. It should be restful to let all of our thoughts fall away for a while, and it is, when we are successful at it. But sometimes it feels like a struggle to get there.
In trying to change some undesirable habits, I’m discovering that I no longer actually get much pleasure out of doing things like drinking coffee in the morning or alcohol in the evening. These are simply the things that I do to fill up those particular time-spaces, and while it feels uncomfortable to think about letting go of these rituals that no longer serve me, I suspect that the result would be a greater sense of freedom and well-being.
I’m beginning to suspect that the only way to have the satisfaction of being enough is actually to do less, not more. Perhaps we can take refuge in our unstructured time, and our freedom from compulsive behavior in the same way that we take refuge in the breath when we meditate.