Probably all of us can relate to the nagging letdown after an event you had been looking forward to for days, or weeks, or months. The times when nothing went especially wrong but the experience just didn’t meet the internal hype you has created. This is a special kind of disappointment. And now researchers have something to say about this unpleasant aspect of chasing happiness.
In a 2003 experiment by Schooler and colleagues, people were asked to listen to a piece of music (selected for them) and some of them were instructed to “try to make themselves as happy as possible” from listening. They found that the people who tried to be happy reported being made less happy from the experience. The people who just listened to the music without TRYING to be happy, got greater happiness from it. Hmmmm…
A more recent study looked at women who said they thought it was very important to be happy and their perceived rates of happiness while under low stress. They found that the women who said it was more important to be happy reported less happiness than women who “valued” happiness less. So, this does suggest that we can set ourselves up for disappointment when we expect happiness as a crucial outcome.
But it is good for us to be happy!?! Absolutely it is. It just seems that chasing happiness as an expectation may not be the best way to get it. In the music study, the people who listened and just let themselves be open to whatever the experience offered reported more of a happiness boost. Being present, without needing the experience to be anything in particular actually helps with enjoyment.
Maybe you can apply this non-striving approach to the upcoming holiday season. Rather than setting yourself (or a partner) up by building towards an imagined happiness, how about going into things with a curiosity about how it might make you feel? Happiness will come and bless us, if we are open to it. Focusing on an experience itself, in all its joys and imperfections, will bring you there more quickly than mentally trying to get to a treasured happiness finish line.
Reminds me of orgasm…the more we chase, the farther away it can seem to get. But when we focus on the actual moment and sensations for their own sake… wow, that’s when a big juicy burst of happiness arrives like an unexpected gift. Be ready for it.
In Buddhism there is a concept called the realm of the hungry ghosts. In this space as ghosts with tiny mouths and throats but enormous bellies. They are always hungry and can never be satiated. They are bound to their desire, constantly seeking more, trying to be full. These ghosts provide insight in to the pain of unsatisfied desire. Many of us have experienced the torment of feeling unsatisfied, longing, desperate to meet a need that remained unfulfilled. Sexuality may have caused us to feel like these ghosts trying to feed but never nourished.
So how can we avoid this frustrating existence? In this metaphor we need to expand our mouths and possible shrink our bellies, take in more while being full on less. I believe we can do this by being mindful and increasing our awareness of sensation and feelings. We take in more by experiencing everything more vividly, reducing distraction and focusing on really feeling what is happening. We increase pleasure by slowing down enough to taste it before rushing on to the next bite. We don’t think of an empty belly waiting to be filled, but think of each rush of flavor as it enters our mouth. Each touch, each breath on our skin, each shudder is appreciated. And so the experience becomes more satisfying.
We shrink our bellies, not by denying ourselves but, by being careful of what we label as “enough”. We are introduced to increasingly impossible and frankly, outlandish ideas of what we are supposed to be satisfied with, leading us to stay chasing an elusive finish line. Stay wary of temptations to always need more. The possibility of more is exciting, it is a gift, but if it becomes a distraction that takes you away from what you currently have to enjoy, be aware of that.
We live in a society that encourages constant dissatisfaction. This makes us good consumers as we desire the relief of the next thing to make us happy. We are trained to be hungry ghosts distracted by unrelenting stimulation, trying to ingest it all, but getting little nourishment from it. Our sexuality is affected by distractions too, of all kinds. It takes focus to really take in a sexual experience without minimizing it by rushing or performing or over-thinking.
Sometimes the most simple things are what satisfy – a fresh strawberry, a quiet moment to hear the breeze in the tree, a singular awareness of the softness of a tongue on your body. Feed yourself by paying attention to what you are taking in. Let yourself enjoy freely, without wondering is there supposed to be more? Change from ghost to flesh and blood.