Monday, February 14, 2022

How to want less

I've just enjoyed reading through an article by Arthur Brooks, "How to want less" in The Atlantic, which is adapted from his new book "From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life." I recommend that you read through it. After repeating the point that evolution didn't design us to be happy, but rather to pass on our genes, he notes:
In fact, our natural state is dissatisfaction punctuated by brief moments of satisfaction. You might not like the hedonic treadmill, but Mother Nature thinks it’s pretty great. She likes watching you strive to achieve an elusive goal, because strivers get the goods—even if they don’t enjoy them for long. More mates, better mates, better chances of survival for our children—these ancient mandates are responsible for much of the code that runs incessantly in the deep recesses of our brains. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve found your soul mate and would never stray; the algorithms designed to get us more mates (or allow us to make an upgrade) continue whirring, which is why you still want to be attractive to strangers. Neurobiological instinct—which we experience as dissatisfaction—is what drives us forward....There are many other, related examples of evolved tendencies that militate against enduring happiness—for example, the tendency toward jealous misery in our romantic relationships.
He notes the history of similar recurring solutions to these problems, for example in the sayings of the Buddha, St. Thomas Aquinas - and even Mick Jagger (in his classic "I can't get no satisfaction"). His self help suggestion is to:
...absorb the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and the Buddha—or for that matter, modern social science—and commit to stop trying to add more and more, but instead start taking things away.
In truth, our formula, Satisfaction = getting what you want, leaves out one key component. To be more accurate, it should be:
Satisfaction = what you have ÷ what you want
All of our evolutionary and biological imperatives focus us on increasing the numerator—our haves. But the more significant action is in the denominator—our wants. The modern world is made up of clever ways to make our wants explode without us realizing it.

Brooks offers three habits he has found useful in beating the dissatisfaction curse: 

I. Go from Prince to Sage (the models of Thomas Aquinas and the Buddha...repudiating the world's reward in favor of inner wisdom and helping others) 

II Make a Reverse Bucket List (repudiate getting more 'stuff' and instead list intrinsic sources of happiness or satisfaction that come from with and revolve around love, relationships, and deep purpose...having little to do with the admiration of strangers.) 

III. Get Smaller (live in the present, not the past or future.)

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