Here’s a seemingly dumb question with a counterintuitive answer:
Would you rather experience a shorter or longer duration of pain?
Stated this way, the answer is obvious, but Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman conducted an experiment that produced the opposite one.
In the first round of the experiment, subjects put their hands in ice cold water for 60 seconds. In the next round, they put their hands in ice cold water for 60 seconds plus an additional 30 seconds in slightly warmer but still ice cold water.
After making them endure both trials, he asked the subjects which one they’d choose if they had to do it all over again:
“[…] nearly 70% of participants chose to repeat the 90-second trial, even though it involved 30 extra seconds of pain. Participants also said that the longer trial was less painful overall, less cold, and easier to cope with. Some even reported that it took less time.”
Why would anyone choose to endure more actual pain for the memory of less pain?
The results of the experiment seem irrational.
Why would people choose to suffer through pain for a longer period of time?
We don’t give equal weight to the way we experience life.
You experience life through two frames. There’s the experiencing self — you living your day to day life at the moment. And then there’s the remembering self — pretty self-explanatory, but the implications are huge.
What do I mean?
You live your life as the experiencing self, but the remembering self dominates your thinking. Think about it. How often are you ever in the moment? You’re usually stuck in your head based on thoughts your remembering self produces. The remembering self — for better or worse — creates your personality.
So which self should you serve?
Spoiler alert: my answer is the remembering self, but let me explain why.
I often tell my wife I would hate winning the lottery.
She thinks I’m joking, but I’m dead serious.
Why? Because I know myself and having all the money in the world and a life of ultimate leisure and relaxation isn’t what I want. Sure, we could travel around the world. But that would get boring after a while.
There’s only so much you crap can buy, so many poolside drinks you can drink, and so many idle days you can tolerate before you go insane.
This is the idea behind the “hedonic treadmill.” The premise is simple — if given the chance to experience ultimate pleasure for an endless amount of time, you’d eventually tire of it (or go crazy).
The deeper truth underneath — we don’t get true meaning and happiness from the experiencing self. The logical conclusion of permanently “living in the moment” is the removal of the mechanism that really drives the way you feel about yourself. Not only are total peace, contentment, and presence difficult goals to achieve, they’re not even worthwhile goals.
The hedonic treadmill symbolizes the folly of endless pleasure. Even if you’re not focused on pleasure — and instead focus solely on mindfulness — the results are similar.
I want to coin a new phrase — the “contentment treadmill.” You can spot people on the contentment treadmill who read Eckhart Tolle or abandon their goals in lieu of nirvana.
They’re chasing a state to permanently please their experiencing self while serving the remembering self the entire time.
The remembering self answers one important question over and over again:
How has your life turned out so far?
If the answer is positive, you more or less live a good life. You have your ups and downs, your doubts and struggles, but if you can look in the mirror fondly, consider yourself to have a decent life and career, you have a solid underlying sense of contentment.
If the answer isn’t so great, life isn’t so great.
The question “how has your life turned out so far?” — a question rooted in goal accomplishment, status seeking, and your innate need to be productive — extends out to become your identity.
And when your identity doesn’t serve you, nothing you do — aside from changing your behavior — will make you feel good about yourself.
Meditation won’t cure you.
Self-love — no matter how much people tout the benefits — will not fully fill the void. Why? Because you can’t trick yourself into loving yourself. Your love for yourself is not unconditional. It’s very conditional.
A life devoid of goals but full of present moment experiences may make you more docile and able to tolerate life, but it won’t make you better.
Mindfulness has awesome benefits. I meditate every day. The core ideas rooted in Eastern Philosophy and Stoicism are great for dealing with life from day to day. I do Yoga But when taken to the extreme, they fail.
A life without desire or goals or comparison or status or measurement of any form just doesn’t work.
Prince Siddartha lived in a palace.
He wanted for nothing.
His father was very protective and wouldn’t let him outside the palace walls.
But, one day, the Prince went outside anyway.
What did he see? For the first time in his life, he saw poverty, sickness, and death.
Ultimately, he came to the conclusion that desire was the root of human suffering, meditated under a tree or something like that, became the Buddha, and taught people how to not have goals and live in the present moment.
Here’s my beef with Buddha.
Before he renounced his possessions and created his philosophy, he got to experience being super rich and having a great life. Had he started in poverty then created Buddhism, I’d be impressed.
The Stoic Philosopher Epictetus gets more credit — he was a slave.
But would most of the people who tell you to follow Epictetus’s life actually live like him? Hell no.
In fact, many of those telling you how to live a life of contentment without desiring materials.,.are rich. Eckhart Tolle has a net worth of 15 million dollars. None of the Hollywood stars and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who promote a life of austerity actually live one.
I don’t blame them either. I just wish they’d be honest.
There’s nothing wrong with having ambition and desire. As long as you use them the right way.
“I baited and switched,” you a little bit with the headline because I wanted your attention.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your life as it happens.
Nor am I saying you should only focus on goals and spend all your time thinking about the past and future.
Here’s the moral of the story: Don’t use contentment philosophies as a substitute for finding purpose in life.
I’m not making a moral or ethical claim either.
It’s just not going to work.
Even if it somehow did, the process of getting there would be just as hard as working toward a goal because…it is a goal.
Finding ultimate contentment via the process of incessantly meditating and focusing on the present moment sounds pretty goal oriented to me. And to what end? To feel nothing? To have no ego or sense of self? To not only not have anything, but not even want it? What are you if you have no personality, no desire to do anything, and no thoughts?
You’re essentially dead. Sure, you’re having these nirvana like experiences watching flowers bloom, or whatever, but you no longer exist in the game we’re playing.
I choose to follow this path instead.
On the flip side of the coin, chasing external rewards for their own sake isn’t a recipe for happiness either.
This isn’t about money.
What is it about?
Purpose and mastery.
This is my philosophy. It’s what I’ve evangelized for the past half-decade of my writing career. Everything I write is a derivative of this axiom:
Success in life comes from finding what you have a natural talent for and working on it for the rest of your life.
You can take a look at these in-depth books and guides about the process:
The outcome is the same regardless of the route.
When you aim at something — anything — and work diligently toward it, you will transform yourself in the process. When you live with purpose, it spills into every other area of your life.
You can feel when someone is (or isn’t) excited to be alive. People who are excited to be alive have better relationships, better moments as the experiencing self, and more energy to give to those around them.
And the people who are excited to be alive don’t just have a reason to be excited, they made one.