There’s a quote that makes the rounds on social media that asks something like, “Remember when you desperately wanted to be where you are right now?”
Although I get the point, I always found this question annoying. The implication seemed to be that as soon as we notice that we’ve gotten where we were trying to go, we will automatically know how to find the destination satisfying.
Maybe that works for some people, but to me it was more like a restatement of the problem than a solution. Like: yes, I thought being an academic and publishing books would make me feel better. No, it did not make me feel better. Thank you so much for pointing that out. Now what am I supposed to do?
I had the same feeling about all the talk about the “hedonic treadmill.” This is the name for our tendency to default to the same level of satisfaction even after major negative or positive life changes. When it comes to positive changes, this made sense to me in terms of the brain’s focus on problem-solving and future results. If we’re always looking for a problem to solve for a future payoff, then of course our brains aren’t great at basking in a problem-free present.
So I understood why I was on the treadmill, I just thought there was no way off it. But it turns out that this actually isn’t the case. Eventually I learned that it possible to create more satisfaction and pleasure by deliberately cultivating attention to the parts of my life that I love. With a bit of consistent practice, it’s possible to reclaim your delight in positive aspects of your daily experience that have dropped out of your notice. Just because our brains want to turn each solution into mere backdrop for the next problem doesn’t mean we have to go along with it.
Note that what I’m describing is different from gratitude. Nothing against gratitude, but for some people it can come with a bunch of baggage about how lucky or happy they should feel. And thinking about how you should feel is a pretty sure route to not feeling that way.
Even if you have a gratitude practice that works for you, thinking about what you love about your life can be powerful in a different way, because it is about finding and growing your sheer enjoyment in what you encounter on a daily basis. It’s about sinking into and magnifying the parts of your daily existence that feed you.
Thinking about what you love about your life also helps shift your focus from accomplishments and end-goals and toward the present. Becoming an academic didn’t make me feel better in any of the final decisive ways I had once hoped — but it turns out that I do get a lot out of the moment-by-moment practice of my job. I love many of the people I work with. I love my students. I love that some days when I say “I have to work” what that means is “I have to lie on the coach and read this book.” I love that I got to write two books.
Looking for what we love about our lives doesn’t mean the negative shit goes away, or that we have to enjoy all of it. But it does help us tune into and turn up the volume on the moments or aspects that we do love. What’s more, it helps us stop kicking ourselves for not automatically knowing how to enjoy the things we have, even if we were once dying to get them. Enjoyment isn’t a given, but it also isn’t impossible. It just takes practice.
To get started in five minutes, try this:
- Think about that question: what did you used to want that you have now?
- What do you love — or appreciate, enjoy, take pleasure in — about having this thing? Set a timer for 2 minutes and write down everything you can think of.
- What do you enjoy about how you have set your life up? What aspects of your daily routine, your location, your home, your community, your leisure, your relationships, bring you pleasure? Set a timer for 3 minutes and write down everything you can think of
- Choose a way to remind yourself of this list routinely — post it on your fridge, send yourself phone reminders, exchange lists with a friend, create a screen saver.
Let me know how it goes!