This is the time to set resolutions and goals. Goals usually are set to satisfy our desires. We may want more money, less body weight, or a different job. We decide to cut sugar or alcohol, to use the latest productivity system to get more done.
But deep down, do these goals and the desires behind them make us happy? We often want a better car, house or an improved physical body. The problem is that we always want more. The psychologists Shane Frederick and George Lowenstein studied the phenomenon of fulfilling a dream, then wanting something else, and termed it hedonistic adaptation. They studied lottery winners, and found that winning the lottery had no lasting impact on happiness. Once someone gets a Ferrari, after the initial surge of happiness, they adapt and wanted something else. As a result of hedonistic adaptation, we find ourselves on a satisfaction treadmill. If we continue on this treadmill it’s difficult to ever find satisfaction.
In yoga philosophy, the Sanskrit word santosha means contentment. Santosha is one of the niyamas, or yogic lifestyle practices of Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali. When practicing yogic philosophy, we're encouraged to become content with what we have by separating needs from desires. While the concept is simple, finding contentment is elusive. My teacher Sri O.P. Tiwari often said to understand the difference between needs and desires. Our basic needs include food, shelter and safety. We often fulfill our desires, and this is okay. Living according to yogic philosophy doesn't require renunciation of worldly goods. Sri Tiwari went further to caution against becoming attached to the objects of our desires. If we are attached to something, if it doesn't happen or we lose it, we become emotionally disturbed.
Interestingly, Stoic philosophy proposes a similar solution: in order to find contentment, we must learn to want what we already have. But how do we do this? Stoic philosophy uses a practice called negative visualization.
Stoic philosophers recommend spending time imagining that we lost the things we value – that our partner leaves us, our home is destroyed, or we lose our job. Imagining that we lose things in our lives which may not be perfect, has a way of making us value those things more deeply.
It’s easy to take our lives for granted. Most of us lead lives that are enviable by millions (if not billions) of people in the world. We live in safe homes, controlled for climate, protected from the outside. If we get sick we can get immediate help. Our lives are relatively comfortable. Practicing negative visualization allows us to see the value in our lives, no matter how imperfect.
So this year, rather than setting a resolution to lose weight or stop drinking, how about a contentment resolution?
Learn to appreciate and love the life you have. Doing so will help you to find tranquility in your current life.
- A Guide To The Good Life, The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine