The nature of the mind is such that nothing is ever perfect. Anytime, anywhere, it always seems possible to invent a way for things to be better or a reason that something is wrong.
Sometimes in big ways, but often in small ones too. Maybe you feel tired or hungry. Or your seat is uncomfortable. You wish this person wasn’t sitting next to you. The coffee is too hot. The coffee is too cold. If only it were sunny outside… and so on.
Maybe you’re familiar with the concept of the hedonic treadmill. This describes how our internal levels of happiness and satisfaction progressively adjust to changing external circumstances.
A positive development happens in life and we get a little happier. But soon after, we adjust to the new circumstances and go back to feeling the same as before. We’re always looking for that happiness increase and so we keep running on the treadmill.
The hedonic treadmill is often applied to major life events – a promotion, entering a romantic relationship, coming to own this object or that object. Then typically, almost stereotypically, a person discovers that none of these things “make them happy”.
The hedonic treadmill is a useful concept to understand, but there is something happening at a more immediate level that is, I think, much more significant for our quality of life. There is a kind of moment-to-moment hedonic treadmill we’re all also running on, characterized by constantly imagining how one’s present experience could be better.
Try to notice how much of your discontent is simply due to wanting things to be different from the way they are.
When on silent meditation retreat last year I realized something interesting about many of my habitual thought patterns.
While all thoughts have a quality about them that makes them seem inherently worth thinking about, certain types of thoughts contain this quality much more so than others.
Simply or trivial thoughts like “I’m really hungry” or “It’s freezing in here!” are often easy to recognize as such. Subjectively “loud” and unhelpful emotions like anger are the same way.
But complex thought loops and patterns, especially when related to aspects of my life that I place a lot of value on, always seem like much more worthwhile objects of attention.
This is true even when I’ve already thought through a particular loop dozens or hundreds of times before. Something about that thought pattern convinces me yet again that it is worth thinking about.
Thoughts grounded in wanting things to be different from the way they are also have this quality to them. They tend to be particularly enticing to your discerning attention.
This is partly due to the fact that these thoughts take different forms and can adapt to the surrounding circumstances. The mind has a near infinite amount of data to draw on – all past experience and all possible imagined future experience serve as material for the formulation of desire.
So while they appear different on the surface, the fundamental character of the thought pattern is always the same: wanting things to be different from the way they are.
For me personally it seems like nearly all of my discontent is due to this one type of thought pattern. I try to catch myself now – there you go again, wanting things to be different from the way they are. But it’s hard.
This is not to say that there is no point in striving for things to be better. Genuinely constructive thoughts and ideas do exist and are certainly worth thinking about.
But the human mind has a terrible signal to noise ratio. If you can create a mental filter to parse out what is useful from what is not, I think you’ll find that only a very small percentage of these thoughts are worth your time.
Sometimes you can improve your immediate circumstances, but most of the time you have to let the mind run its course, accept that nothing’s ever perfect and just get on with it.
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