Evolution punishes complacency. The organism that is content with enough doesn’t have enough for long. A little bit of greed drives you to find that little extra food. That impulse that says you’ll be happy after one more purchase? It keeps you stocked for the leaner months.
But I don’t believe that this dissatisfaction is a feature added to our brains by natural selection. I think it’s a fundamental part of our neurological makeup. A useful one from a survival perspective. But it’s intrinsic to who – and what – we are.
And, if I’m right, this teaches us how to be happier with what we have.
I’ve talked about impermanence from the Buddhist perspective. Another key attribute, dramatically enough, is translated as suffering. “Existence is suffering,” so they say.
When you look into existing, the way Buddhists describe it doesn’t sound like pain or agony. The brain seeks rewards. Our egos crave validation. We’re always after more resources – mentally, materially, socially, whatever.
And when we get these resources, we feel good. The pride of victory. The happiness from time spent with a friend. Satisfaction following a fantastic meal.
But these rewards are fleeting. Everything is impermanent, especially our thoughts. So we constantly crave and can never be satisfied.
Does this sound like suffering? I guess. It makes us like hamsters in a wheel or Sisyphus with his boulder. We strive for rewards that filter through our fingers.
It’s hardly agony, though. That’s why I like’ dissatisfaction’ as a term. We can never be sated. We always need more.
If this is true – if our very neurology can’t reward us the way we want – then what’s the point? What can we do about it?
Our mental rewards are impermanent, it’s true. But not all impermanences are made equal. You can train your mind to more easily indulge in rewards. You can improve your attention so that it holds the sensations in a more stable state. It’s still a temporary high… but it’s less temporary.
This might be the least profound answer to ‘what’s the meaning of life?’ – improve your focus and make your pleasure centres trigger-happy. You could do worse, though. Besides, I love these sorts of gambits. Even if I’m completely wrong about all of this, it’s still good to follow this conclusion.
People want to stop and smell the roses. You do that by noticing beautiful, wonderful things. When you pay close enough attention, even your heartbeat is sublime.
People want to succeed personally, professionally and socially. You do that by cultivating a powerful attention – one that doesn’t waver from outside stresses.
Who cares if this philosophy is right when the benefits are titanic?
The best part is how easy it is. If you struggle with meditation, I get it. I’ve been there. Chances are that you’re doing too much or expecting the wrong thing. It’s a natural way to use the mind. You have to learn it, sure, but it’s something your brain wants to learn. And when you treat your brain well, it treats you well.
And what an optimistic view of ‘suffering’ that is.