As far back as my memory serves me, the primacy of happiness has been peddled by psychologists, religious leaders, celebrities, the media and just about everyone you can name.
As you grow older, though, you recognize that everything is in a perpetual state of flux. Your boat is always leaking, you are always bailing water. Your health is always put in question. You are always responding to a barrage of challenges, problems, successes, losses, thoughts, choices, tastes, smells, sights, sounds, emotions that start to change as soon as it arrives.
The more you strive to preserve a pleasurable feeling, the more you realize that your ineffectual efforts are lost before it ever began.
You may recall from my previous blog post that emotions are made in the brain by concepts that are constructed over time by your genes in response to the culture your were born into, the example of your parents, your teachers, your friends, the media — i.e. your environment. These environmental factors will inevitably change, which means that the concepts that precipitate your emotions will change, which means that you will never be in a perpetual state of happiness, or sadness.
It is like playing a computer game and falling prey to the same bogeyman, as you turn the same corner, time after time after time.
Why pursue a losing battle? Why not stop and reflect? Why not change your strategy?
I believe, instead of pursuing happiness, a more meaningful strategy may be to seek well-being — that is, to develop a state of equanimity and mindfulness despite the vicissitudes of life.
Some people believe that they can find this state of well-being within the narrative of a God that never changes, but except for a few texts on the subject, recorded in an ancient book, I don’t see any empirical evidence to justify belief in these specious claims. A more practical approach may be to embrace the reality of your existence as science reveals it to us and to relinquish your affection for the comforting, but anachronistic stories of your religious and spiritual teachers.
If you are willing to embrace the science of our day, you may come to understand that the ‘self’ is a construct, just like emotions are constructs made in the brain. If these constructs are shaped by your environment then you, the self, need not be synonymous with your thoughts, and need not be synonymous with your emotions. If you can change the environment, then you change the concepts in your brain and change your emotional responses.
If you stand at the precipice of 2019, flooded with emotions of anxiety, take heart, not in a 2,000 year old story, but in the reality of your existence and the knowledge that you are not your thoughts, you are not your emotions. This knowledge is the foundation of your new strategy.
The journey of becoming more mindful is no quick fix — you are facing up to millennia of evolutionary processes that couldn’t care less. But if you do embrace your new strategy to become more mindful, perhaps next time, you will pause before that all-too-familiar, bogeyman corner, and not scamper past. And as you wait and observe, you will have an opportunity to see the bogeyman pass by unsuspecting, like a thunderstorm in the distance.
Here’s to a more mindful, 2019.