The Stoics pointed to two principal sources of human unhappiness:
- our tendency to worry about things beyond our control (see my previous post)
- and our insatiability.
According to Stoicism, it will be unlikely to obtain a good and meaningful life unless we can overcome (or channel) our insatiability, which is inherently part of being human.
Hedonic adaptation: (the “satisfaction treadmill”)
After working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest in the object of our desire. We adapt to its presence in our life and as a result stop desiring it, in fact, we end up just as dissatisfied as we were before fulfilling the desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander desires.
As a result of the adaptation process, people find themselves on a satisfaction treadmill. – A guide to the good life – William B.Irvine
One of the key to happiness according to the Stoics is to forestall the adaptation process: we need to take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted the things we worked so hard to get. The easiest way for us to to do so is to learn how to want the things we already have.
This might sound idealistic, but it is something we should consider if we want to at least channel or use to our advantage our insatiability. In my interpretation of this advice, I don’t see this as being contradictory with being ambitious.
I think it is healthy and admirable to have great ambitions and is probably worth trading present happiness for future success for our grand goal – our North star. We can therefore use this “unwanted” feature to our advantage to keep the fire alive.
In other areas however, I think it is foolish to spend our life in a state of self-induced dissatisfaction when satisfaction lies within our control. We can use this rediscovered satisfaction in other aspects of our life to fuel our passion to reach our North star.
My take is therefore to aim for a conscious compromise on how we want to gain satisfaction in life, a “self-aware” attempt to change the world around us, but also, as Epictetus advises us, by changing ourselves and our desires.
How to practise this idea?
Rather than holding images of things that we desire in our minds, we should take time to imagine that we have lost something that we already possess, leading to a satisfactory feeling when we realise that in fact, we are lucky enough to have it already.
Through repetition of accessing these thoughts, in a controlled and objective manner, we become inured to the negative emotions that arise from them, we are therefore objective when something happens and we can be rational in our reaction in response to it.
This technique can be used also with our dear ones, we should love them but always with the thought that we have no promise that we may keep them forever, no promise even that we may keep them for long. By doing so we will be less likely to take our loved ones for granted, and as a result, we will probably derive far more pleasure from them being in our lives than we otherwise would.
Negative visualisation teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight we can from it, being surprised by what we already have and don’t take anything for granted, like children do.
But it simultaneously teaches us to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that delight us.
In this ideal state, if we are diligent enough to follow these steps, we will, out of the blue, feel delighted to be the person we are, living the life we are living, in the universe we happen to inhabit.
Comfort zone challenges:
The stoics advise us to expose ourself to uncomfortable, less than ideal situations, in order to become accustomed and inured to them, but also to appreciate the comforts we worked so hard to get.
I do take regular “comfort zone” challenges as cold showers every morning or doing things outside of what I believe I am good at. (public speaking, writing or speaking a different languages).
The benefits are noticeable, it allows me to keep myself in “DRAFT” mode – which is not taking myself as a finished product but as a dynamic, imperfect yet ever growing prototype – which leads to unexpected and surprising results along the way and I hope, a far superior product. The self-discipline that is required is also something that builds – as a muscle – and is applicable in almost every sphere of one’s life.
It is extremely unlikely to ensure we will never experience discomfort and following the strategy of avoiding discomfort at all costs is extremely counterproductive. By reducing the impact discomfort has on us via these voluntary practices however, we inherently broaden our opportunity set. We have to train ourself to keep our mind open and take steps to ensure that we never get too comfortable and stop growing.