Someone once said to me “The problem is you have started asking questions you shouldn’t have started asking. You have opened Pandora’s box!” I didn’t understand at the time. I would often wonder about the intricacies of life and the direction I was taking. Was I enjoying the things I did or was I doing them because of subconscious motivations? It is a rabbit hole. If you look in the mirror and don’t like what you see, it is difficult to unsee it. If you ask a question and don’t like the answer it can’t be unasked. The danger of self-reflection is finding something that you don’t like. Imagine finding out that your life wasn’t yours. Or the things you did was for acceptance not for joy. What if the labels you bought was due to a lack of self worth. Self-reflection is dangerous to the ego but liberating for the soul.
” The unexamined life is not worth living “Socrates
Living on the edge of a nervous breakdown had become the norm. Energy drinks fuelled the chaos. Kept on the edge of life. Prolonging the anxiety and embracing it as normality. Busyness masquerading as productivity. Reality became exposed through the examined life. The questioning of our intentions exposes the motivations. Are they our drivers? Are the paths we pursue our own or the ones imposed on us?
I’d spent years focusing on travelling the world. The lesson I learned was that I didn’t need to travel to be happy. I learned that I had everything I needed to be happy. I had to travel to learn that I didn’t need to. This realisation was hard to take. The realisation that my life long dream had been a waste of time sent me into a depression. The time I had spent pursuing the dream had been for nothing. Or so I thought. Slowly I began to realise that I was lucky not only to have the experience. But I was also lucky to learn this lesson. Instead of pursuing happiness like some kind of elusive entity hiding in a mystical object or experience that just had to be found, I realised it was with me all along. It is with us all. This type of realisation is devastating to an economy that relies on the hedonic treadmill for sustenance. Without the cyclic pursuits of escape through consumption, the tills stop ringing. Debt decreases. Ironically happiness increases. It is almost as if anxious and unhappy citizens make good customers.
I am not talking about abandoning modern life and living in fields or mud huts. I am talking about asking the question “why?” Why do we do the things that we do? Who do we do them for? And do they serve us? I have pursued many paths in my life so far. I’ve been gluttonous to the point of addiction. I have been frugal to the point of destitution both forced and by choice. Always searching but never finding. It was until I started to look inwards that I could really find what I was looking for. The inner light guides if we are prepared to let it shine the way. I realised my needs are quite simple. Much like Epicurus suggested; food, shelter, friends, family and time for reflection.
I remember something written by Erich Fromm about the anxiety-inducing properties of the question “What next?” After all the external requirements have been acquired, a place to live, partner, kids/or not, food, and job, “what next?” The reason it induces anxiety is that our culture doesn’t have an answer. So we set about getting a promotion, a newer car or a bigger house. Then find ourselves faced with the same question. To me, this just demonstrates that the answer doesn’t lay externally. Contentment isn’t found in temporary things or things that can be taken away. It only can come from gratitude and appreciation. Only then will enough be enough. The pursuit of incremental dopamine hits to prolong the illusion of happiness will decrease. Contentment by its very definition isn’t fleeting. It is a deep realisation that everything is in alignment. And that everything is okay just as it is.
Self-reflection is dangerous because it may expose the path we have been walking down as one we don’t desire to be on. That the hamster wheel of consumption no longer serves. That the people who look unfavourably on your decision to retire from the illusionary competition are only doing what they believe to be the right thing. We are encouraged to promote the status quo after all. I have been taken aback by the question “why are you so happy?” many times. I’m not talking about bouncing around annoying happy. Just content. Just accepting that situation is where I was and accepting it was the best choice. Free of worry. No other reason than being present.
The hedonic treadmill – In psychology, a hedonic set point is the general baseline level of happiness a person experiences over their lifetime, despite any temporary changes in the level from positive or negative life events. The theory argues that although events and environmental factors can affect happiness in the short term, people will naturally adapt back to their hedonic set point in the long term.Hedonic Treadmill Definition (investopedia.com)
It has been argued that after a “life changing event” there is a return to a “base level” of happiness. Winning the lottery would be amazing… for a while. But after ticking off the bucket list, then what? A return to the base level of happiness. So would winning the lottery guarantee happiness? Or is it to raise the base level? If so then how?
By aligning our life with our inner morals. By connecting with others who hold the same values. By finding purpose within those values. Basically, by becoming a human being again. Cultivating connection and social bonds that stand the test of time. Instead of clinging to anyone who offers an alternative to being alone. This way it is possible to find real people. But to do so we have to be real ourselves. Not changing with the breeze hoping for acceptance by similarity. Be genuine. By introspecting it is possible to see who we are. To connect with who we are. To be comfortable with who we are. Then it is possible to find like-minded others.
Searching for the next fix. Slobbering over the next escape. Running the treadmill of consumption. It is easy to lose focus on the things we have. The last material good that was the motivator soon becomes old. The shiny newness fades and is replaced with the blinding light of the next product that offers fulfilment. Rinse and repeat. By taking stock of what we have. How lucky we are. And how bad things could really be. Liberates us from the illusionary competition with the “Jones’s.” Gratitude is proven to lessen anxiety and depression. It redresses the mindset that all in our own lives is bad whilst everyone else is living the high life. Exacerbated of course by social media and the attempts to prove a point to people you don’t know. I am not suggesting that gratitude cures mental health problems but as a practice, it can help to raise the base level of contentment. If we spend our lives looking at how “successful” everyone else is whilst we flounder, of course, it is going to makes us feel inferior. It may also motivate us to want to become like those. But does it result in happiness? Or is its promise of happiness the carrot attached to the stick that keeps us running on that treadmill?
Individuals’ with an understanding of their innate desires or lack thereof are dangerous. Not to each other but to the expectation bestowed upon them. The realisation that taking on debt for the purchase of an item under the expectation of an increase in happiness will most likely result in the happiness finishing long before the debt does. It is an addiction. And like all addictions, it needs feeding often. Unfortunately, many addictions aren’t broken until it has consumed the addicts’ life to the point of destitution. It is only with no other options but to tackle the problem is the problem faced. A rock bottom. It isn’t a guaranteed wake up call. Many will increase the mechanisms of escape to hide from the problem.
Ironically, the opposite of addiction is connection. It is the connections made in recovery that has liberated me from my previous life. The fake competition only serves to separate and destroy the connection. There is power in connection. There is movement in collectives. But without an understanding of our moral compass, it is difficult to find out where we belong. My desire is to help. My inner light burns brightest at the service of others. I have tried the materialistic pursuit but was often left wanting. I used to feel guilty. Or think I lacked ambition. Just because I didn’t desire hierarchical dominance. It took years of questioning to finally accept my path. I fought against myself for years. Forcing myself to do things I didn’t want to do. Just in the hope that the things I could buy with the money I earned would bring the happiness I sought. I was often disappointed. I had fun. But it ultimately felt directionless. I will never be rich. But I may be happy. That very notion is difficult to accept. Especially as the last forty years of my life have emphasized the connection of material commodities in the place of real connection to life and the self.
As Shakespeare wrote “To thine own self be true!” How is this possible if we dare not ask who we are?