I have been searching for something all of my life. Some would call it happiness; others call it success. No matter what I achieve, the goalposts seem to keep moving.
Perhaps this sounds familiar.
Maybe you realize that it is all an endless chase.
Maybe you are tired of:
- not being completely at peace
- being concerned with what others think
- having your sense of self-worth tied to your children’s “success”
- living life as a fireman putting out fires – each day differing only in the size of the inferno
- not being present no matter how much you meditate
Perhaps you are tired of having most of your moments not really being moments at all but rather, thoughts of something from the past or for the future.
Most of us are searching for happiness. Everything we do is an attempt to be happy. Every single thing each day. But happiness is an illusion, a destination that doesn’t exist. A trick played on us by our minds.
It gets worse. We tend to view happiness as a transient emotional state that changes day to day. “Yesterday I was sad” or “I’ll be happy this weekend when I’m not on call.” Much of this emotional state is governed by external circumstances largely out of our control. As we think about our own lives, that good feeling from getting what we wanted was quickly erased by the off-handed comment by a coworker, the email response that never came, or something that our kids did or didn’t do.
We can be “happy” one minute and upset or anxious in another.
Our emotional state, and therefore our happiness, is a roller coaster of highs and lows. The search for happiness is really an escape from misery, Most of us live with a baseline of moderate anxiety, stress, and generalized discontent, no matter how much money we make or what we have achieved in life. We try to string together as many positive experiences as we can to relieve this suffering.
We find ourselves chasing something that always seems just out of reach.
Why does it seem like we never quite get to where we want to be?
Every stage of life’s goals is met with another goal. We look forward to the next level in our lives only to remain unfulfilled upon arrival. We begin to question the significance of it all. We ask ourselves if this is all there is to life. We double down on our chase to feel good. We drink, watch TV, scroll endlessly on our phones – anything to feel something other than what we feel – stressed, anxious and unfulfilled.
Here is what has been learned through decades of exploration and working with hundreds of physicians:
We don’t need to chase more money, a better title, another life hack, or a new side gig. We don’t need to meditate longer, find a new morning routine, or quit medicine. We don’t need to do anything except understand the source of our suffering.
This is where ancient wisdom and modern science from positive psychology can help us.
The real issue is this: the mind has evolved for survival of the human organism – the divine core being inside each of us.
At the most basic level, the brainstem and limbic system are concerned with autonomic function and hostile environments. The mind adapted to constantly search for threats and opportunities in the wild. Watch how a dog behaves – constantly on the lookout for dropped food (opportunity) and strangers (threats).
As we evolved as a society, the mind grew the prefrontal cortex to be able to effectively deal with these societal interactions. The mind has created this persona or identity that we see when we look in the mirror. We can call this ego – not in the sense of bravado – but as this manufactured “self.” This ego is still the mind and only concerned with survival. This ego still constantly searches for threats and opportunities. It can never fully rest because resting would threaten its survival.
The ego can never be satiated, no matter what it achieves.
This is why we take for granted stimuli in our lives that are constant (hedonic adaptation) as we become enamored and focused on new stimuli (new relationship or next promotion). This hedonic treadmill keeps us locked firmly in the future chasing the next level.
The thrill of getting into medical school is quickly replaced by the stress of matching into a good residency. The excitement of making partner is quickly replaced by dreams of retirement.
This is also why we overestimate the positive or negative impact of an event on our future emotional reactions (impact bias). This bias motivates us to search for the next opportunity or avoid a potential threat. We work hard to achieve the next goal in our life only to find that it does not make us any happier.
The mind is clever.
It keeps us toiling away, looking forward to the fruits of our labor. But in the end, the fruit is not as sweet (impact bias) or as lasting (hedonic adaptation) as we thought it would be.
The truth is this: the mind does not care about our peace, happiness, or contentment – it only cares about survival.
It cares about building up our ego, making our manufactured self strong, always looking to the future to make sure it is still around.
But deep inside, our core being – our unique potential – remains unexpressed and held hostage by this protective shell of our mind.
This tension between our core being’s unfulfilled potential and our mind’s demand for survival is why we often feel irritable, anxious, depressed, and discontent. We look for relief from this pain, no matter how brief.
This insight allows us to finally understand the futility of the chase. The endless quests, constant worries, and unshakeable feeling of restlessness that are so conditioned within all of us that we think they are a “normal part of life.”
With inner exploration and understanding, we can stop searching. We can move beyond the emotional roller coaster of stress and anxiety to access a deeper level of flourishing – through the realization and fulfillment of our unique potential.
So how do we do this?
What has been the most effective for physicians who have learned these principles is having a comprehensive framework that allows us to cultivate attention to things that matter in life. This is vital and largely missing from much of the fragmented advice found in the self-improvement/well-being space.
We spend our attention on how we spend our lives, and most of us give this away too freely.
Positive psychology, along with ancient wisdom, can provide the foundation for this framework by exposing our minds’ evolutionary trappings and pointing us toward the right mountain to climb. The rest of the framework focuses on cultivating and focusing our attention on this journey. In a world filled with noise, this is how we uncover the true signal to fully realize our unique potential.
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