a bearable lightness of being

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A FRIEND OF MINE just got back from Lesotho, a small country in Africa, where he spent two years in the Peace Corps. He told me the people there thought all Americans were rich. As far as he was concerned, he was a poor college student. He’d never thought of himself as rich. We Americans don’t usually think that way because we’re used to our level of wealth. But compared with the people in Lesotho and with many places on Earth, we are rich.

A king of an empire only a thousand years ago was poor compared to a modern American. You and I have services and possessions completely incomparable to the kings: microwave ovens, TVs, phones, medical technology, paved roads and cars to drive on them, hot showers, running water, flushing toilets, CD players, and it goes on and on. We’re rich, but we hardly ever think so because human beings have a natural tendency to feel unsatisfied, discontented, to always want more no matter how much we have. It’s true for the people in Lesotho and it’s true for you and me.

U.S. citizens have become progressively wealthier through the years. The average citizen in 1953 had access to 153 electronic appliances. In twenty years, it increased to about 400. The median size of a new home built in 1949 was 1100 square feet. By 1993 it had grown to 2060 square feet. A person in the U.S. on average, owns twice as many cars now as people did in 1950. We’re wealthy! But not very many of us feel wealthy.

The truth is: No matter how far you come, it is never enough. No matter where you arrive, it soon becomes the status quo and loses the thrill, and pretty soon your sights go out to something better. It’s human nature.

We’re all in the same boat. We’re all naturally greedy. We all continually escalate our desires above what we have. It’s as natural as breathing.

But just because something is natural, doesn’t mean it’s good or that you’re helpless against it. This is an important point. It’s natural to have sexual desires. But that doesn’t mean you can jump on everybody you feel attracted to and just apologize later: “Sorry, I couldn’t help it. Sex drive, you know. Biological.” No. We control our natural sexual desires.

In the same way, we can control our natural greed. And I don’t mean merely controlling greedy behavior, but actually controlling the feeling of dissatisfaction.

Before this chapter is out, I’ll tell you what you can do about it, but first I want you to grasp the full scope of the problem. Your greed has an impact on every area of your life. You’re greedy about your relationships. You want your lover to be perfect. You’re greedy about your money. No matter how much you make right now, a little more would be better. You’re greedy about your food, your time, your possessions, your pleasures. You would prefer to feel good all the time. You want everybody to treat you with respect. You always want more than you have, and sometimes you feel unhappy about it.

To make matters worse, you also feel pushed and pressured by your own greed. It feels like you must do this and you should do that, but all you’re doing is trying to satisfy your own desires — you want to get a promotion or earn more money or whatever. Your desires feel like needs, but most of them aren’t. They are what you might call “false needs.”

Let’s say you want to be the next CEO of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, and you’re excited about your goal. You feel good about it. But a few weeks later, you feel stressed by it. What happened?

Your perfectly innocent desire has turned into a false need. As long as it’s simply a desire, the goal — or any goal you want — can be stimulating and fun and inspiring and motivating and a whole bunch of other pleasant feelings. But when you have to put together a resume, and you think you should get it in the mail as soon as possible, and you need to make it perfect, the goal is a drag: it brings you down, lowers your mood and it’s not good for your health.

When you’re fully aware you don’t need to accomplish your goals but only want to, you have energy, good health, and your enthusiasm influences people who can help you.

Desire brings you up and drives you forward with pleasure. Greed brings you down and stresses you out.

When I was a kid, I had to pull weeds in our lawn. There was some kind of “devil” weed (at least, that’s what my dad called it) that kept growing in the grass, and Dad was determined to prevent this evil from taking over the neighborhood. So, come summertime, my brother and sister and I were sent forth to conquer. Our mission: To seek out and pull up the weed with the red leaves. Summers were hot in Nevada. I hated that chore.

Next door to us lived the O’Rourks. They also had the evil weed growing on their lawn, and my best friend, Tommy, had to pull weeds too. Sometimes we had a scheduling conflict: I was ready to play, but he was pulling weeds. I helped him so he could finish sooner. I noticed that pulling the weeds from the lawn next door was much more fun than pulling them in my own yard, and I even knew why: because I didn’t have to do it. When it was his lawn, it was an option for me, and I did it because I wanted to. The physical task was identical. But mentally, the task was quite different.

Of course you can’t really do this with your job: “I don’t have to go to work. I want to go to work.” You wouldn’t fool anyone with that one, especially yourself. But there are some elements you can influence that may improve your attitude toward any source of stress. We’ll give you a technique here and then look at how it works using some examples.

Use this technique only when you have a feeling of dysphoria (this is probably an unfamiliar word to you, so here’s the definition once more: dysphoria is anger, anxiety or depression, mild or intense). If you’re feeling great, leave yourself alone and enjoy it. This isn’t “positive thinking.” It’s more like “anti-negative thinking.” Use it only when you feel negative. The technique is a series of questions you ask yourself:

1. “What do I want?”
2. “Do I need it to survive?
3. “What would happen if I didn’t get it?”
4. “Do I want to keep the goal, give up on it, or replace it with a new or modified goal?”

This technique will work with any kind of false need — in your job, your relationships, your body goals, etc.

Let’s see how it works. Imagine you’re in an argument with someone close to you. You’re feeling a negative emotion (anger) and you want to use this technique. So you need to have a dialog with yourself.

Can you have a dialog in your head while carrying on a conversation with someone else? Probably not. Especially not when the discussion is heated. After a lot of practice under easier conditions, maybe you’ll be able to do it, but not now. So take a walk or excuse yourself. Say you need a little time to think, and go into another room. And to make it even easier (which we suggest), get a pad of paper and a pen and write down the questions and your answers. Here’s how it might go:

Q: What do I want?

A: I want to make my point. I have a valid point to make, and I want to make it.

Q: Do I need it to survive?

A: No. I won’t die if I can’t make my point.

Q: What would happen if I didn’t make my point?

A: Probably the argument would lose its fierceness.

Q: Now that I’ve thought this through a little, what do I want? Do I still want to make my point? Do I want to give it up? Or do I want to make a new goal?

A: I don’t want to make my point, at least not in this way, and not now. I want to set a new goal: I want to listen.

These questions take the need out of it if it truly isn’t a need. In our hypothetical situation, you go back to listen to the person you were arguing with, and you keep listening until the other is through talking. You’ll probably understand her or him better, and it may change the point you wanted so much to make. Or perhaps you’ll get into better communication and you’ll be able to make your point without anger.

This is a time-consuming process at first. But after doing it a few times, it starts to go quickly. When you’re good enough, you can probably do it in a few seconds while in the middle of the argument, and your partner will gape in wonder at your self-control!

 

THIS TECHNIQUE ALSO WORKS when you’re striving for a goal and the goal becomes an unhappy burden. Put yourself through the same questions. When you get to the last one, seriously consider giving up on your goal, because if the goal isn’t giving you any joy, what’s the point? You aren’t here long enough to fritter away your precious years on misery.

You might be thinking, “But my goal is not just to give me joy. I’m trying to send my kid through college,” or “I’ve got to pay the mortgage.” If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re in the trap right now and you don’t know it! You don’t have to send your kid to college, and you don’t need to keep your house. You could let your child earn her own way through college — and she might develop a stronger sense of self-reliance because of it. You could move to an apartment and give up yard-work forever. I’m not saying you should do these things, but you could. And knowing you could, knowing that those are only desires of yours, goals you set, will give you a different feeling toward those goals, just like the difference between pulling weeds in my lawn versus Tommy’s lawn.

You have the option: You can choose to keep your goal, or you can change your mind. It’s up to you. If you decide you want to keep the goal, it will be fresh in your mind that you want it, and you’ll feel differently about it. It’s a mental maneuver, and it’ll change the way you feel.

It doesn’t make any difference to say to yourself, “I don’t need this, I want it,” in order to “make yourself” feel better about it. Saying the words, “I want this,” doesn’t affect you much. Knowing you have the option to give it up and deciding not to do so is what makes the difference. That’s why you ask those questions and answer them sincerely. You don’t need to pump yourself up or believe something you don’t believe.

What gives this process power is taking away the falsity. You take away the goal during the questions. The goal is not real. It doesn’t exist. You made it up. You decided to accomplish it. The pressure to accomplish it is in your head, not in reality. When you remove the goal, it changes the way you feel about it.

Sometimes you’ll ask those questions and you’ll realize you really don’t want to make your point or be the CEO of Ben & Jerry’s. And that’s great. You’ll get a fresh opportunity to create a goal that’ll give you some pleasure instead of misery or stress or boredom.

The same point applies in the reading of this web site. You might feel a desire to practice an idea presented here so you can feel better more often. I’m hoping you will. But you may later feel burdened by it — as if you have an obligation to become happier. You don’t. You don’t have to become more successful. You don’t have to look good or lose weight or get rich or feel good. You don’t have to do much to survive, at least here in America. Your mother may not approve, but you don’t have to make her happy either.

You may want some of these things, however. You can figure that out for yourself. But you’ll feel better more often if you keep in mind that you want to do them; you don’t have to.

It’s perfectly natural to think your life should be better than it is. It’s perfectly natural, and perfectly counterproductive. It causes more dysphoria than is necessary. Realize that your desires are only desires that you chose and you’ll feel much better and work toward your desires more effectively.

And when you realize you have a desire that cannot be attained, you can give it up and replace it with a different desire. You’re in charge of this. You’re not the victim of your own desires. You can choose what goal to reach for. You can choose goals that’ll give you the most enjoyment to pursue, and you can keep yourself aware that it’s your game so you can get maximum enjoyment from it. And by doing so, you can voluntarily fill your life with a bearable lightness of being.

 

The principle:
Ask yourself: Do you really need it?
Do you really have to? Or is it only a preference?

Author: Adam Khan
author of the books, Self-Help Stuff That Works and Antivirus For Your Mind
and creator of the blog:
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