The Only Constant is Change

One of the best things I did on this year’s Vision Quest was to compile all my journal entries from the past 4 years, save them to my kindle, and begin reading back through them, from 2010 up toward the present.

I use Penzu to keep all these saved. What’s great is that whenever I write or receive a personally-important email or chat, I can just CC that message to Penzu, and it gets saved forever.

Consequently, I had a lot of content to read back through. And if you were ambling back through your own life, wouldn’t you want that? Yes, you would. It’s been great. I am only about halfway through 2012, right now.

In my reading, one consistent fixture has emerged: the inescapability of change.

Lots of us in Western culture are subconsciously obsessed with the idea of “arriving”, meaning one day we’ll have the XYZ which solves all our problems. This, as we know, has been force-fed into us via mainly advertising and social comparison. In recent years as we’ve gained more cognizance of this farce, it has now become more popular to poo-poo this idea, and instead run with some bromide like “it’s about the journey”. Bleh.

I say that the notion of “arriving” is much more of a human neuroticism than a Western-consumerist one. It’s just that advertisers in the West (and now everywhere) have had the time and impetus to tap into that instinct. But it was there from the start.

The last couple of decades of cognitive research have borne witness to this universality. For instance, it is now known that the brain’s opioid pathway — which makes us feel satisfied and content — is easily overpowered by the much stronger dopamine pathway — which makes us want and seek for more/new/better. Think about that for a moment.

The seeking and hungering in you is stronger than the contented and at peace in you. Not in some vague spiritual sense, but in a way that is demonstrable, neurological, empirical.

Definitely true. Gah.

When you consider that our primeval environment was composed not of cars and mortgages, but of predators and strangers and miles and miles of remoteness, it all makes a little more sense. We wouldn’t have made it this far, out of the ancient places, unless we were all tuned a few ticks past reasonable, into the neurotic. We are a race of seekers and want-ors, forever curious, acquisitive, and … basically insatiable. This puts today’s global resource crises into a more sympathetic light, perhaps. And if you were an advertising exec in the booming 1920s, wouldn’t this be the best news you’d ever heard?

… But I digress.

Where I was headed was:

In general, we tend to imagine ourselves “arriving” in a place or a lifestyle that will finally make us happy.

As I’ve read up through my memoirs, what I’ve seen is that consistent recurring sentiment. First it’s the living situation, then it’s the job, the car, the next job, the girl, the “next season”, and so on. Always rationalizing, always consoling myself with visions of what’s to come.

And it does come. In time, most of the things I’ve set my sights on have come to pass. But nothing in particular changes about my mindset. The hungers and aspirations don’t go away. They just grow to fill the new container in which they are placed.

This isn’t just about lifestyle inflation — which is where one’s expenses creep up and up to match one’s growing income. This is more about, hmm … dare I say, the inflation of dissatisfaction? Or perhaps, of hope.

My boss was asking me how I was doing a few weeks ago. I said I was pretty good. He asked me what it would take to get to me to great. I told him I didn’t know. He said ya know Ian … sometimes I wonder if maybe you’re a glass-is-three-quarters-full kind of person … where you walk around all the time and things are always pretty good, but they could still be better.

I’m sure he’s right about that.

At the bottom of all this, I’m left with a simple truth: the only constant we can be sure of is change.

As long as we hope for new things, we will never be still. This is not a bad thing, but it really depends on what you want. Advertisers have us simultaneously believing that (A) one day we can “arrive” and be finally content, in a euphoric stasis, and also (B) we will never arrive, because there is always something else to yearn for and want, something to envy or to buy. Maybe this dualism is why we’re so confused.

If we desire to truly be content where we are, if only for a season, then that contentedness will require our vigilance. The research suggests that gladness is not strong in our evolutionary heritage, so we’ll have to find ways of reinforcing that, over and against the dopamine pathway. Perhaps this is best accomplished through simple disciplines like daily gratitude. Point is, if we don’t adopt this vigilance, we will never naturally settle into a long-lasting contentment. Without proactive measures, we’ll be at the mercy of our natural insatiability. Forever.

This may be leading somewhere more concrete, but we’ll have to see later. Pun intended.

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