“I might have added, as it entered my mind to do, that some people found satisfaction in being. Being. Others were taken up with becoming. Being people have all the breaks. Becoming people are very unlucky, always in a tizzy. The Becoming people are always having to make explanations or offer justifications to the Being people.”
— Saul Bellow, Henderson the Rain King
What is happiness and why do we chase it so fervently? To put this question in perspective, let’s consider the idea of the hedonic treadmill. This concept is defined simply as “the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.” The implications of this are huge. Obvious as they seem, why don’t we learn from them? Because with our greatest strength (adaptation) comes our greatest weakness (insatiability).
The transformation of the mind that occurs during meditation confirms this idea that happiness is static. One of our greatest strengths as humans is that we adapt. The cost of this flexibility is that we sometimes lose sight of our own ability to adapt. We convince ourselves that we need more and more of this or that to be happy when in reality we already have the secret. The secret is to simply exist.
What, then, optimizes happiness? Not grubbing at the future, the shiniest things, or the glitz and glamor. What optimizes happiness and contentment is making sure your hardware is functioning properly. Exercise, meditation, learning, love, good conversation, healthy foods, sleep, meaningful work—these are the elements that make up an existence optimized for contentment rather than clinging.
Why did I choose these particular activities? They come from within and rely on an integration of our essential humanity with the world at large. They connect us rather than separate us. They remind us of the web of nuanced interrelations that makes up the world. The activities that make us miserable are activities that we give our contentment up to—overworking, clinging, addiction, wealth, fame—in exchange for a brighter future. Those who do this eventually find that such a future never comes, just more adaptation.
We trade control of ourselves for these methods of feeling we have acquired the world, but the world cannot be acquired. When we return to activities that are fundamentally tied in with meaningful existence, we find what we are looking for. Part of this comes from not looking so hard. Which gets pet: the rabid dog or the blissfully unattached puppy?
In this sense, the less you need, the more you have. If our strength is in adaptation, we should not see this as an opportunity to pillage worldly pleasures for all they are worth. Instead, we should see it as a warning sign. If one attaches oneself to acquisition and attachment, there will never be enough. The mind may try to convince itself otherwise, because that’s its job—to adapt. Our power as humans comes in our ability to transcend this, to step off the treadmill and take an actual journey.
Charlie Ambler is the founder of Daily Zen. A 240-page collection of his writings is available here. Follow him on Twitter @DailyZen.