The luxuries of the 21st century have created the expectation that life should be comfortable. We have become accustomed to ease and security to the point where we see having problems as a problem. Then when we find we are overweight, or too stiff, or chronically anxious, the solution seems far too hard. And if it’s hard, something must be wrong with the solution—you must need a pill, or lap band surgery, or just some new clothes.
What we miss when we take this approach is the personal development that comes from working to solve our own problems. Each time we take the easy way out, distract ourselves with stuff, or simply don’t step up to the plate, we strip ourselves of an experience that will turn us into something more. Our pursuit of easy fixes keeps us a more limited version of ourselves.
Challenges are an essential part of life that force growth, bring excitement, and open possibilities. There is no running from them. They’ll always be there. Some things are supposed to suck—accept that and drive forth. Change how you approach the suck, and the world is brighter and more vibrant.
This is an essential lesson. Great training and education should offer an alternate mental framework to operate from. We must study what composes success, so that we know how to get there. Once we understand ourselves, we must take action to intentionally create a happy, fulfilled life.
How Much Is Enough?
The foremost challenge in our age of abundance and constant distraction is hedonic adaptation: the tendency of people to return to a baseline level of happiness despite improvements in circumstances. Thanks to reality TV, we’ve all seen the rich and unhappy get bent out of shape when a waiter brings a “cheap” $100 bottle of wine. We scoff at them and consider ourselves so much less vain, but let’s put that into context.
If you are able to read this article, then you have access to more luxury and abundance than 99% of human history could even dream of. What’s your current problem? Bad cell phone reception? We have memory foam beds, unlimited music on demand, access to most of the world’s literature, free education, video games that let you control the NFL, Netflix, a camera built into your phone, and the ability to contact your entire social network in seconds. You can effortlessly travel thousands of miles from your home in a matter of hours, in air conditioning, while being fed a meal you had no hand in preparing. Despite all this, we are a chronically depressed nation. What gives?
Internet entrepreneur Kevin Rose calls this phenomenon “experience stretching.” He gives an example where you see the most beautiful sunset, and subsequently experience a deep sense of gratitude. The next night you bring a glass of scotch and are sure that life can’t get any better. The next night you add a cigar to go with the scotch. Wow! What an experience! Finally, the next night, you decide some moderation is in order—no scotch and no cigar. But now, you find that that original sunset has lost its luster. After stretching that original experience to bring such rapturous euphoria, you have trouble coming back. It appears you won’t be satisfied again until we bring back cigars, scotch, and add the company of a Brazilian supermodel.
Realizing this tendency in ourselves is an eye-opening revelation that we should all ponder. It has the ability to radically shift what you pursue in life and create a different perspective on what is of real value.
A Shift in Perspective
So why are we like this? Our tendency to crave more is an essential evolutionary quality. We don’t settle because our fulfillment requires growth and contribution. To grow, we must experience problems and continually fortify ourselves against the insidious death of apathy. This concept is very helpful in changing perceptions.
We need problems for growth, and growth for fulfillment, so frustrating situations become opportunities for growth. A traffic jam which once sent you on a tirade is now part of your daily patience training. Happiness comes from solving problems, and most of what we complain about are good problems. If there aren’t enough hours in a day, a) you like what you do, and b) this is your impetus to learn time management and prioritization. If your wife wants to spend more time with you, a) you’re loved, and b) you have an opportunity to create new shared interests. If you’re tired of feeling tired and don’t like the extra insulation you’ve added, you’ve got momentum to start a lifestyle change that could create a far healthier future for you and your kids. Look for opportunities for growth, and the world becomes rich.
While the dissatisfaction of hedonic adaptation has a role, there are also things we can do to live with more appreciation. The answer isn’t that we should feel guilty or avoid pleasures in life. I want you to be in the moment and suck the marrow out of life. But creating awareness of your own tendency to need more to be happy takes intentional training and focus.
Train Your Perception
Skewed perspective is not a new phenomenon. The first-century philosopher Seneca wrote about it in his letter, “On Festivals and Fasting.” Seneca, a very wealthy Roman, suggested taking a few days a year where “you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest of fare… saying to yourself the while: ‘is this the condition that I feared?’” There is a reset in perspective that comes from occasional, short self-denial challenges.
Seneca’s solution for hedonic adaptations was days of self-denial each month. Many religions have offered similar approaches with seasons and days of fasting. Rather than full days each month, however, what about daily self-imposed rules? This is a similar method to what most healthy people do in life. They make sustainable lifestyle changes and follow rules that allow control, productivity, and happiness.
- A great healthy rule would be to give up added sugar except one day a week.
- You could save yourself money and overabundance of useless stuff if you made a purchasing rule: any leisure item you want to buy goes on a list and cannot be bought for a full month. At the end of the month, you’ll find most items get cut.
- Most people constantly sabotage their productive streaks with email and social media checking. Set a rule that you can only check email at 12:30 and 4:30 each day.
For great success in training, in work, in relationships, and in life, the primary prerequisite is your perceptions and beliefs. Education should alter how we perceive the world. Education should change our lens and offer tools that create possibilities. A growth mindset and a trained perception are the most important variables influencing your happiness and ability to persevere towards a goal. Yet we offer our kids so little on the subject. Beliefs and perceptions are what we must target. Students must understand the pitfalls of their tendencies, and what actions they can take to create better mindset. Change your perception, and you change your life.