Finding Joy

“In their quest for happiness, people mistake excitement of the mind for real happiness.” – Sayadaw U Pandita, Myanmar Buddhist monk

My last post examined Dr. Judson Brewer’s work on addiction as discussed in The Craving Mind. It focused on our need for distraction in the face of unpleasant feelings and how that inculcates unhealthy behavior patterns. There’s another aspect of craving that bears a moment or two of reflection – i.e., the thirst for continuous gratification.

Like it or not, we are pleasure seeking beings. We crave people, things, feelings, and experiences that feel good and avoid ones that don’t. Moreover, when we sense a lull in action or feel disengaged with what we’re doing, it’s easy to look for some form of excitement to get our juices flowing again.

Daydreaming can stoke our fires. We imagine a life filled with our heart’s desires and, perhaps, contemplate a journey that might get us there. We may run simulations in our brain to assess the likelihood that we could make it happen. Or, we may simply abandon all sense of reality and create a fantasy world into which we escape.

Shopping can be an allure for others. Companies spend billions of dollars in advertising to convince prospective consumers that the key to happiness lies in purchasing their products. We feel the rush of excitement when the coveted item becomes ours. Unfortunately, the feeling doesn’t last long, and we set ourselves up to buy the next new toy. (When we downsized last summer, I was struck by how much stuff we’d purchased over the years and rarely used. Such waste!)

Adrenaline junkies seek intense and thrilling activities that deliver a physiological rush – e.g., sky diving, extreme sports, dangerous lines of work. These activities cause the body to produce adrenaline which increases heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It sharpens the senses and boosts energy in response to a perceived danger. But again, the feeling doesn’t last, and its pursuit can be costly physically, emotionally, and financially.

On a much smaller scale, click bait can give us a tiny hit of dopamine to break us out of the doldrums. The thrill of anticipation piques our interest; clever marketers use evidence-based methods to capture our attention once we get there.

All the foregoing work against our being sustainably awake, aware, and embodied in the present moment. We become slaves of our wandering minds, our cravings, and the false sense that happiness is somehow “out there.” We lose sight of the path to true happiness and well-being.

There are several antidotes for our attachment to continuous gratification.

Positive psychology guru Dr. Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi found that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow. This state happens when we are fully engrossed in voluntary activities that stretch our bodies and/or minds to accomplish something worthwhile. In such activities, we act with such deep and effortless involvement that we temporarily let go of everyday worries, responsibilities, and frustrations. We’re “in the zone.” In my experience, the activities need not be Herculean. I get “in the zone” when engrossed in a good book; I’m bored and restless when watching TV.

Mindfulness helps break the allure of continuous gratification. As discussed in last week’s post, we can observe with curiosity the mind’s tendency toward craving – in this case, its thirst for excitement. If we succumb to the temptation, we can notice the feelings that arise, the length of time those heightened sensations stick around, and the place to which we return thereafter. Was it worthwhile? Were there better uses of our precious resources? If we resist the temptation, we can notice how the impulse to act increases in intensity and then attenuates, soon to be replaced by other thoughts and impulses. A craving is just a craving until we get sucked into it!

The promise of a consistent practice of mindfulness lies in the quieting of that part of the brain that activates in response to boredom, notably the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). These regions are associated with self-referential thinking and are linked with OCD, daydreaming, rumination, and craving. They settle down when concentrating with ease on the present moment.

Until we define happiness for ourselves and see clearly the difference between excitement and joy, we’ll be ensnared by craving. Excitement brings with it restlessness and a contracted urge for more. Joy that results from curiosity activates a healthy imagination and creativity and yields peace, openness, and deep well-being.