By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.” – Frederick Keonig
We were recently driving through Louisiana and passed a billboard advertising a casino with the headline “Happiness is just a spin away.” For the gambler, this is the lure. Each win is a rush of happiness. Unfortunately, it’s short-lived. The next burst of happiness is now right in front of the gambler if they just continue spinning. From a psychological standpoint this is a perfect example of the power of intermittent reinforcement. When a reward is contingent upon an action, in this case pulling the lever on a slot machine, but the dispensing of the reward is not predictable, with the number of pulls needed to produce the reward not predictable, it produces a very potent form of conditioning. It is why gambling is so addictive. The brief rush of a win strongly conditions the lever pulling to get the next rush.
I was struck by how well the sign, “Happiness is just a spin away,” captured the western ideas of happiness and how to obtain it. It is a perpetual cycle of reward producing brief happiness followed by the loss of happiness followed by more action to produce another brief happiness. This is what psychologists term the hedonic treadmill. On the face of it, it sounds silly. We would never do that. But, if we look honestly and carefully at our lives we will see that most of it is spent on the hedonic treadmill. We work to purchase a new car and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. So, we pursue a new love interest, and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. So we work to purchase a new home and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. So, we look for a new job and get a rush of happiness, but after a while it fades. And on and on it goes, on the treadmill, pursuing the ephemeral happiness that we can never seem to be able to keep a hold of. So, we spin the wheel again.
Humans consider themselves smart people. But, it never seems to occur to most people that there may be something wrong with their idea of how to obtain happiness. After spending the majority of our lives failing to obtain the lasting happiness that we seek, you’d think that we’d catch on that what we’re doing isn’t working, hasn’t ever worked, and there’s no reason to believe that it ever will work. But working against that recognition is a society and a culture that is determined to keep us on the hedonic treadmill. The western consumer culture requires that we keep seeking happiness in things. If we didn’t, the economy might collapse. It is virtually impossible to escape the advertising messages that pervade our everyday lives. Each holds out the promise of happiness if we just use this toothpaste, take this drug, drive this car, see this movie, go to this concert, buy this gadget, etc. The barrage of messages is all geared to keeping us on the treadmill. If there is a crack, a glimmer of vision that something might be wrong, the messaging distracts us by bombarding us with the idea that “happiness is just a spin away.”
So, what are we to do? Give up the search for happiness? No, that is a waste of time. We are born with a biological program to seek happiness and to deny it is to fight against our biological nature. So, trying to not seek happiness is as futile as to pursue it on the hedonic treadmill. Fortunately, there is an answer. One so simple, that few see it. It’s right in front of us hidden in our delusions of what makes us happy. It is so simple that we can’t believe that that could be the answer. It is so contrary to the cultural messaging that we can’t trust that it could work even if we saw it. It’s simply to accept what is, enjoy what we have, and be in the present moment.
If we adopt the belief that happiness is right here, right now, if we only allow ourselves to accept it, then we will begin to look at our existence differently. We don’t need to search somewhere else. We don’t need to wait to another time. All we need to do is look closely, without judgment at our present experience. We have become so used to it that we can no longer see it. But, what is here in the present moment is actually wondrous and miraculous. Each breath is a miracle. The energy and life just bubbling in and through our bodies is amazing. How can we not be happy when we realize the mystery of our existence and what a gift this precious moment is. We’ve experienced so many similar moments, are so accustomed to them, that it’s difficult to break through and see the wonder in each one. But, just concentrate, if only occasionally, on fully experiencing what is transpiring right now. It just might change your life.
Just take a look around. Listen to the bird chirp and wonder at the experience of hearing and the sheer beauty of the singing. Look at the tree where the bird is perched and enjoy its uniqueness. There has never been and never will be one just like it. See its beautiful nuanced colors from the myriad shades of brown of the bark to the shimmering green of its leaves in the sunlight. Look at its roots and be amazed by its stability and strength, at their ability to remove nutrients and water from the ground and move them a 100 feet into the air. Look at its leaves wonder at their ability to use the sun’s energy to create complex molecules and energy from the nutrients. Now look at the person standing under the tree and witness their uniqueness. Marvel at their ability to simply stand or walk and what an amazing feat of balance, dexterity, coordination, and strength it is. Look in their eyes and realize the consciousness that is looking through them and seeing you. Observe their happiness, sadness, joy, fear, etc. and recognize how much just like you they are. Relish the fact that you are not alone. This could go on and on. There is so much right in front of you in this present moment to keep you entertained and awed for days on end.
The ultimate reward for making the effort to deeply experience the present moment is the happiness which will grow. Not the ephemeral happiness or the momentary highs of the hedonic treadmill, but an enduring, satisfying, mellow happiness that can be re-invoked at will. Happiness is not “a spin away.” It is always present and accessible in the present. So, get off the treadmill and discover the happiness that has always been present inside you. You only need to stop the seeking elsewhere and just be in the present. Happiness is not somewhere else at some other time. It is here all of the time for the picking. You just have to stop waiting for the results of the “spin” and simply enjoy “spinning.”
“There is only one cause of unhappiness: the false beliefs you have in your head, beliefs so widespread, so commonly held, that it never occurs to you to question them.” – Anthony de Mello
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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