Humans are a suggestible bunch. We’re constantly influenced by external factors, be it advertising, social conformity, or any else in our environment. There’s also internal factors that affect us, and one that is utterly terrifying, like a demon lurking in our minds, waiting for its chance to strike a malevolent blow. When we’re in a regular state of stress, it’s hard to defend against.
Some historical cases explain it best. In the 70’s, a man was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and given just two months to live. The pronouncement appeared true, and he passed away. After slicing the unfortunate chap open, however, they discovered that his tumour had not grown, and concluded that it was not the cause of his death. They speculated that it may have been the expectation of his impending death that actually killed him.
In another example, a despondent gentleman decided that existence was no longer worth it, and downed a bottle of pills. Almost immediately afterwards he rediscovered a ton of reasons to live, and dashed to the nearest hospital, collapsing when arriving at reception due to hyperventilation and low blood pressure. It was quickly discovered that the morose man was currently in the midst of a drug trial, in which unknown to him, he’d been assigned placebos. Turns out that he’d consumed a whole bottle of sugar pills, and his mind had manifested his pearly-gate-approaching symptoms. After being told the good news, he promptly recovered.
If you’re a hayfever sufferer, you might consider artificial flowers to be a safe bet. But a hundred years ago, doctors found that hayfever symptoms can be brought on by exposure to fake roses. This only worked if the person didn’t know that they were made of plastic.
In the present, modern technology is causing similar problems for people. Sufferers of Electromagnetic hypersensitivity believe that the plethora of electronic devices surrounding them make them sick. As with the other examples, these people actually manifest symptoms when exposed to what they conclude to be areas with strong electromagnetic fields. They don’t do so well in double-blind experiments though, being completely unable to identify when an intense field is present. Wind Turbine Syndrome, common in Canada, is another example of a disease created purely from suggestion.
This hideous yet fascinating quirk of the mind is called the nocebo effect—the nefarious twin brother of the much more agreeable placebo effect. Both of these are proof that our beliefs and expectations can have a direct cause on our wellbeing. The American Cancer Society claims that the placebo effect is responsible for up to a third of symptom relief for sick people. That’s a staggering amount. With this in mind, how much suffering might we be causing ourselves as a result of its malevolent twin, the nocebo effect? If we expect to have a miserable day at work, are we authoring our own fate? Are we making ourselves unwell?
Chilling as the nocebo effect is, the power of its counterpart cannot be understated. The placebo effect has the capacity to cure cancer, heal ulcers, and even persuade assumed-to-be-dead hair follicles to sprout from the heads of bald men. It’s a small part of our incredible and unfathomable ability to self-repair, which if we play our cards right, can be used to our advantage.
This extraordinary self-restoration skill only works when you’re relaxed; the moments when your parasympathetic nervous system is in play. Stressed people don’t self-heal, they self-harm. You need a healthy mind to mend your ills, and there’s a number of ways that it can be achieved.
Most importantly: meditate. It’s probably the most essential habit that you can develop for yourself, besides regular exercise. It’ll drastically reduce your stress levels; you’ll learn to distance yourself from your emotions, instead of being swept away by them; it enhances your self-esteem and acceptance, improves your memory, your focus, your energy. The list goes on.
Self-compassion is a powerful psychological habit for the healthy-minded among us. Just as caring, nurturing doctors and nurses have shown to accelerate the recovery of their patients, we too can cultivate a similar attitude towards ourselves, and reduce our stress levels.
Finally, do anything and everything that feels honest and enjoyable to you. Slowly make your life into something that you want, not the life that society attempts to coerce you into. Over time, the modest improvements that you make will bring your self-repair mechanisms into play more often, reducing the odious nocebo effect, and increasing the regenerating placebo effect.
Many people in Western society seem to harbour the impression that their lives are somehow lacking; that their current position in the world, their numerous, shiny possessions, the relationships that they maintain, and the emotions that they feel, aren’t entirely up to scratch, as though what they’re experiencing is just a lacklustre pre-show—a taster before the main event. Though our days may be peppered with stimulating challenge, favourable encounters, and a great deal of comfort, there’s still something missing. Surely this can’t be it?
We carry within us an insatiable desire for more—a destroyer of contentment; a hankerer of stuff, status and success, that we assume will assassinate our demons, or at least muffle them for a little while, as though the fulfilment of our wants can somehow repair our yearning souls.
Where does this voraciousness come from? There’s a few culprits, each with their own part to play.
“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
One of the most depressing misconceptions in Western society is the idea that accumulating stuff makes us happy. Observe the terrifying fracas of a US shopping mall on Black Friday; hoards of consumers dashing for cut-price products, more than willing to thrust their elbows at anyone who gets in their way. Consider the tacky line of super-bright Lamborghinis that might appear outside a Monte Carlo casino – their gold-dripped owners assuming that admiring looks from the public will help to camouflage their deficits of character. Contemplate the ever-expanding wardrobe of the average person, every square inch of space being used, and yet nothing to wear.
Materialism is baked into our capitalist economy, driven by the nonsensical belief that every purchase carries a little bit of happiness with it, but in reality, leaves us both financially and spiritually emptier. Excessive materialism has shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. The things that are being rapaciously sold to us—our irises continually flashing with the bright reflections of persuasive adverts—are making us miserable. A study undertaken by the American Psychological Association found that materialistic values are driven by insecurity, with sufferers buying more stuff in an attempt to assuage their harrowing self-doubts.
“Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy so they’ll have jobs and get enough money to buy things.” —Philip Slater
“When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.” ― Shirley Chisholm
“The point is, there is no feasible excuse for what we are, for what we have made of ourselves. We have chosen to put profits before people, money before morality, dividends before decency, fanaticism before fairness, and our own trivial comforts before the unspeakable agonies of others” — Iain M. Banks, Complicity
In his book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser explains that those hell-bent on obtaining possessions tend to experience fewer positive emotions every day. On the flip-side, those who report high levels of life satisfaction are liable to entertain fewer materialistic values, and have better relationships. We’re much more materially affluent than our grandparents, but are slightly unhappier, with a higher risk of depression and social pathology. Materialism not only fails to increase our subjective well-being, it causes us damage. Every happiness-promising advert that flashes before you is tainted with a sickening irony.
“For what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”—Mark 8:36
As social animals, status is naturally important to us. We’re anxious to stand out from the crowd—to tower over our peers so that we may win their respect, and so their love. We abhor the condescending glare that we might receive when paying for a train ticket with mountains of small change, as though our temporary financial hardship is something disgusting, to be placed at a far away distance so that it cannot infect the more fortunate among us.
Much of our craving for status is created from our inherent desire to be loved, fuelled by the assumption that we’ll be treated with benevolent respect if we’re able to show off our expansive seven-bedroom mansion, our platinum gray Armani suit, or our Instagram model girlfriend, lovely to look at, but with the conversational skills of a hyperactive parakeet. Status is compensation for inadequacy—the idea that we’re not good enough, and so must surround ourselves with luxurious wealth, creating a facade that might trick our audience into thinking that we’ve really got it together.
“By faithfully working eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” ― Robert Frost
Status cannot inoculate us against feelings of distress, or fix the nagging doubts that we have about ourselves. All the money in the world cannot make us happier, and in fact, excessively wealthy people suffer from higher rates of depression. Psychologist and author Leon Seltzer has treated various millionaire patients, stating the following:
“Having worked professionally with several multimillionaire malcontents, I can say that what they really craved were those things intrinsic to happiness laid out at the beginning of this post [supportive relationships and self-acceptance]. The transient highs that accompanied their wealth accumulation were never much more than a hormonal rush anyway. And even though in the eyes of the world they were enormously successful, continuing frustrations and insecurities gave testimony to the fact that the blast of ‘feel good’ chemicals their success yielded was all too easily exhausted.” — Leon Seltzer
“Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?” ― Socrates
Self-help gurus tell us that CEOs read a book a week, and that we can do the same when purchasing their cut-price course, eventually eclipsing the achievements of our colleagues and accelerating away from them towards career dominance, a position where our perpetual emptiness might finally be filled. It’s bullshit, of course. Status and wealth may produce admiring glances, but they cannot create what we really need—the love and compassion of our fellow humans, and patient, sympathetic self-acceptance.
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” —David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World
Rejection of sadness
Sadness, and its accompanying, so-called negative emotions, has a tendency to be rejected by Western society, as though there’s no place for it in our lives. We’re taught that happiness is our natural birthright, and sadness a disorder to be cured. Naturally, during our darker, melancholic moments, we suspect that there’s something wrong with us, and that the situation is somehow unnatural. We’re not supposed to be this way!
Sadness—along with the other six basic emotions—is a permanent part of our biology. This inevitable, painful emotion will appear countless times over the course of our lives, often at the most inopportune of moments, challenging us to a battle in which we have little desire to partake. Instead, what we usually do is attempt to numb the sadness in some way, whether through alcohol, drugs, shopping sprees, or any other vice that offers nothing but a band-aid with weak adhesive. Our unreasonable desire to expel sadness from our lives helps to feed an addiction to positivity, a compulsion doomed to failure. We simply cannot change our nature.
“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or very foolish imagine otherwise.”—George Orwell
Now that the some of the culprits of our perpetual yearning have been unearthed, what can we do to battle them? How can we learn to become content with what we have? You might consider trying the following.
Gratitude is like kryptonite to our greed for more; a neutralising element that drains its destructive power. The field of positive psychology has shown that a gratitude diary can increase feelings of contentment, because it forces you to focus on what’s good in your life, rather than what’s lacking. By paying attention to the things that we love, we stumble upon the realisation that our lives contain much joy, and our thirst for more is temporarily diminished.
“You own twice as much rug if you’re twice as aware of the rug.”—Allen Ginsberg
Mindfulness meditation is an exercise sent from the gods, offering benefits such as reducing stress, controlling anxiety, and much more. Though it certainly requires practice and patience to become an expert, the process itself is simple, and requires no equipment.
Meditation helps to fight our desire for more by forcing us to slow down and appreciate what’s in front of us, as opposed to frantic, anxious thinking which tries to soothe itself with destructive behaviours such as gluttonous shopping. Our new-found calm carries an enhanced sense of self-awareness, allowing us to catch ourselves in the act of pernicious thinking, whereby we stop for a moment, realise that we’re about to engage in a toxic act, and decide to do something healthier instead.
Self-acceptance and self-compassion
Self-acceptance is allowing, accepting and welcoming all parts of yourself, whether good or bad. It’s about accepting your shadow—the dark, grisly side of your nature that you’d rather keep locked away in a dusty cupboard. There’s not a person on earth who doesn’t have flaws, the trick is learning to accept them. Unconditional self-acceptance allows us to live full and honest lives, embracing each and every aspect of our personality.
“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” — Amy Bloom
As we become more self-accepting, we also become more content, which weakens our incessant yearning for more. By reminding ourselves that we’re worthy of love (from ourselves most of all), we’re instilling our lives with genuine, clear-cut value.
“You accept that, as a fallible human being, you are less than perfect. You will often perform well, but you will also err at times… You always and unconditionally accept yourself without judgment”—Grieger
This practice can be accompanied by self-compassion—being kind, gentle, and supportive to yourself at all times, even when you make the most horrifying of mistakes. Self-compassion allows you to distinguish between making a bad decision, and being a bad person. Gaffes are being made everywhere all the time, and a typical reaction is to attack ourselves for the indiscretion, creating destructive feelings of shame and unworthiness. Treating ourselves with sympathetic kindness is the favourable alternative.
“Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness, concern, and support you’d show to a good friend. When faced with difficult life struggles, or confronting personal mistakes, failures, and inadequacies, self-compassion responds with kindness rather than harsh self-judgment, recognizing that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.” —Neff & Dahm
Friends make us feel loved, creating a sense of belonging and a deep-seated satisfaction, vanquishing our desire for more. Voracious shopping sprees or glistening palaces are no longer needed to make us feel better about ourselves—our friends do a much better job. Side-splitting laughter, or serious, soul-touching conversation, is no substitute for an oak-panelled corner office in a Manhattan high-rise.
“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” —Helen Keller
All of the money, material goods, and status in the world cannot quench our incessant desire for more. Often, it backfires and our craving is strengthened, leaving us in a worse state than before. Our insatiable desire for more can be allayed through consistent gratitude, regular meditation, self-acceptance and self-compassion, and strong relationships. Eventually, we’ll come to realise that we don’t need a million dollars or a house full of expensive gadgets in order to feel content. Eventually we’ll realise that we have just what we need—we have enough.
“Two men graduated from the same high school. One of them went to college and graduate school and became a professor, making a professor’s salary. The other went out and became a billionaire in the business world.
At a reunion, the two got together, and the billionaire was boasting about all the things he had accomplished and was able to buy with his billions. The professor said, “I have something that you will never have.”
The billionaire said, “How can that be? I can buy anything with the money I have. What do you have that I will never have?”
The gavel – that little polished hardwood hammer that fits most snugly in the judge’s hand – is something that we all love to use. Each occurrence in our lives is judged to be good, bad, or neutral, with an unforgiving and decisive smash on the block.
Judging our experiences is natural behaviour that has allowed us to endure through the ages, from the tiniest, inconsequential sea-dwelling microbes, to the complex Earth-ruling creatures that we are today. Judgment proffered us with the motivation to get the fuck out of the way when a rhino was charging at us, or to tip-toe towards the cave of an attractive, hairy neighbour. Without this evaluating force we’d be aimless wanderers, with nothing to entice us; zombies without a cause.
Our tendency to assess is a crucial force in our lives, but we’ve become overly partial to it, and perhaps a bit cocky. Our dynamic, businesslike brains can rapidly evaluate our desire or aversion towards something, and yet, the conclusions that we make aren’t always in our best interests. Watching a cricket match for six hours might seem like a hell designed just for you, and that’ll be a permanent assessment unless you approach it with a more receptive, open attitude. There’s nothing wrong with giving something a chance – let’s not pretend that you’re a high-flying socialite with a calendar busier than a hoard of spring bees. Your judgments aren’t infallible, and you could be missing out on a great deal of joy.
Judgment colours your experience, creating distortion before its even begun. Declaring that something is bad is like tarnishing it with hideous black paint – the encounter is bound to be ruined. Judgment often creates a self fulfilling prophecy; a miserable destiny authored by yourself.
Nothing in this world is inherently good or bad, we just label them so. A monstrous category five hurricane that hurtles towards an innocent American town isn’t fundamentally evil, just as the rains that make a poor farmer’s crops grow cannot be considered fundamentally good. This is Mother Nature at work, exhibiting her ruthless indifference towards our species. But these are extreme examples – less drastic occurrences happen to us a thousand times a day, with each one painted as good, bad, or neutral.
“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Shakespeare, Hamlet
Our incessant verdicts can cause us a great deal of stress. Relinquishing our judgment of “bad” offers us an escape route to a more peaceful mind, one in which our experiences aren’t automatically corrupted by bad habits.
“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.” – Epictetus
This is not to say that judgment can be permanently suspended, we still need it to survive. It’d be foolish to defer the assessment of an articulated lorry that is charging in our direction. Similarly, our sense of morality is pinged upon the ability to discern right from wrong; good and bad. Most of our deductions, however, are much more trivial, and their cessation can offer us serenity.
Non-judgment means you don’t have to make an evaluation of every experience, you can simply be aware. This state of mind can be delightfully tranquil, in which usually threatening events are stripped of their danger, encouraging us to pay close attention instead of turning our backs. We experience things just as they are, not how we’ve assumed them to be. Non-judgment is a way to see the world clearly, like getting a pair of spectacles after having blurred vision for years. Suddenly, a sharpened focus is attained, in which a thousand details that we’ve never noticed – that we were too judgmental to notice – are presented to us in dazzling fashion. Withholding our interminable judgments turns up the brightness in our lives.
“I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life.” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
If the thought of sitting still for prolonged periods makes you want to start uppercutting people, you might consider trying the following instead:
Notice when you’re judging. Pay attention to what happens in your body and mind.
Recognize your thoughts without denouncing them as bad or good. Suspend your judgment.
We’re never going to stop smashing the gavel entirely, and nor should we – it’s essential for our survival. But we can train ourselves to use it less frequently by practising non-judgment, and in the process, our minds can attain a serenity in which we’ll live our lives with less friction, and greater contentment.
If you’re a person living in the Western world today, there’s a good chance that you’re overstimulated. We’re on the receiving end of an unstoppable information Blitzkrieg, gun turrets mercilessly firing an endless amount of data into our frenzied brains. Gleaming high-definition screens are all around us, eternally beckoning us to bathe in their seductive luminosity, to steal our attention from the actual world. The writers of Wall-E were wonderfully prescient in their estimation of a chair-bound, near-boneless society who couldn’t fathom the idea of a world beyond their screens. Slowly but surely, we’re becoming that society. Some office spaces now offer a service whereby you can order a barista-made coffee directly to your desk, because heaven forbid you’d be forced away from your screen for five minutes, you might miss something! We want every email, meme, video and blog, and we want it right now. Yank us away from our screens and you may find yourself on the receiving end of a poorly-executed right hook; why would we want to talk to an actual person, with all of its potential for awkwardness, when we can communicate using a much safer method such as texting? Revealing micro-expressions aren’t part of the message-sending process, thank god.
Information is a broad term that includes anything that comes through our screens, and it’s something that we crave. During our lengthy evolution, information equipped us with a better chance for survival, so seeking it out is a core motivation for us. This is one of the many uses of the fabulous chemical dopamine, which when released in our brains, drives us to perform an action. A modern day example of this would be glimpsing your phone on a table while at a restaurant. The moment the phone re-enters your awareness, dopamine is released, which causes you to reach for it. Much of modern technology has been designed to satisfy our urges for information, and while many of our gadgets are incredibly useful, they can also be terribly toxic, transforming us into dopamine-addled automatons who live only for stimulating information, at the detriment of our sanity. We’re so accustomed to constant stimulation, our dopamine receptors so adapted to bombardment, that when we’re in a situation without it, we feel anxious and bored. Our eyes flit from object to object, it almost feels like our skin is crawling; we’re like hopeless drug-addicts who want nothing more than to be escape the situation by tightening the belt, spiking our veins, and pushing the HIV-coated needle in.
The metaphor is appropriate – information overload is playing havoc with our health. Overstimulation can lead to psychological orders such as anxiety, leaving you in a horrible, persistent state of inner turmoil. Social isolation, insomnia and depression are other disorders linked to perpetual screen-usage, each more grim than the last. Sensory overload can leave us feeling fidgety, restless, irritable, and with a frantic state of mind whose brakes appear to have been maliciously sabotaged. Any notion of switching our brains off and relaxing seems laughably futile. Could you imagine the horror of having forgotten your phone while being sat on a Mexican beach during a holiday? You’d be forced to take in your surroundings! At least we won’t miss any notifications on our smart watches while taking a soothing dip in the Pacific – they’re waterproof after all. And if that isn’t enough to satisfy our tragic craving, the hut-like beach bar has a 60-inch quantum-dot LED TV with an endless loop of humorous cat videos emblazoned across its surface.
Clearly, the assault on our senses is damaging us. Modern, millennial humans haven’t had the time to adapt to our current environment; we’re no longer required to hunt for food, undergo physical labour, or form lasting friendships in order to survive. These are things that we did for hundreds of thousands of years, and in the blink of an eye everything changed, apart from us. The price we’re paying is mental illness.
Thankfully, there’s solutions. Advocating a complete removal of technology is pointless; it’s everywhere you turn, and marvellously useful. Instead, we should consider self-imposed windows of use, such as only allowing yourself to check social media a couple of times a day. Apps such as Chrome’s Block Site can help with this. You don’t need to devour a hundred memes a day to survive, regardless of what your addicted brain is telling you.
Consider restricting your TV and YouTube usage to an hour a night, giving yourself an hour’s gap before bed so that your brain can start producing the melatonin that assists with sleep. The bright lights of your devices are fucking with your restoration. You might consider reading a book before bedtime instead, or an activity with similarly calming aspects.
Stop multi-tasking – you’re doing three things poorly, instead of one thing excellently, and you’re stressing yourself out at the same time. Good work requires focus, and it isn’t physically possible to focus on one thing at the same time. Multi-tasking is a myth created by the lizard people to control the masses, don’t succumb to their scaly ways.
Step out into the wonderful world once in a while. Whether gently ambling or speedily running, being amongst green surroundings reduces your blood pressure and refreshes your information-addled brain. Don’t batter your ears with music throughout the experience; listen to the world around you instead. It can be surprisingly compelling if you just pay attention. Leave your phone at home!
Allow yourself to be bored, it can be a fountain of creativity, and help you to discover what’s most important to you. Take the time you need to think about something in-depth, in every glorious dirty detail, instead of skimming the surface and then getting distracted. Only by switching off from time to time can we reap the therapeutic benefits of silence.
Most importantly, meditate. Vanquish the thought of your piss-taking friends for a moment, and just spend 15 minutes a day sitting still. The benefit list of this exercise is longer than a porn star’s man-sausage, and includes improved self-esteem and acceptance, a superior memory, improved focus and energy, and other benefits going on for another nine inches.
Take back the attention that has been stolen by the marauding and rapacious pirate that is modernity, and instead spend your time building good habits. Engage in activities that feed and replenish your soul; withdraw from the cloud, don’t immerse yourself in it. In time, you’ll start to feel better.
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