Real Joy, Right Now
A friend of mine once had a small part in a Broadway musical that starred a legendary figure of the British stage. The script was a disaster, the director a tyrant, the cast a freakish assemblage of mismatched personalities. Everyone in the production seemed permanently on edge. Everyone, that is, except the Englishman.
One night over drinks, my friend asked the actor for his secret. "Dear boy, I'm a contented man," he explained. "You see, I have a boat. I keep it docked at the 72nd Street Pier, and every few days I take the boat out for a sail. When I'm on the water, all the stress just blows away."
A few years later, my friend ran into the Englishman on the street. The actor had changed dramatically: He looked drained, thin, and sad. When my friend asked if anything was wrong, the Englishman explained that he'd recently been divorced.
When my friend offered his condolences, the Englishman only gave a hollow laugh. "Oh, the divorce isn't the problem," he said. "The real problem is, my wife got the boat."
In recounting this story, my friend likes to say that it needs no commentary. Most of us know all too well how it feels to lose something or someone we thought was the source of our contentment. What's worse, we also know how it feels to go out on our own version of that boat, only to discover that suddenly it fails to bring us the contentment we'd relied on it for. And everything—be it a boat, a relationship, a house, a job, or money—that lies outside of our own selves will eventually cease to satisfy.
Clinical psychologists call this the problem of the hedonic treadmill. Suppose you win the lottery, marry your beloved, take your company public, publish your novel to universal acclaim. You feel great for a while. Then, little by little, your prize becomes part of the furniture and you find yourself looking for another hit. That's because, according to some recent studies, we all have something called a "happiness set point," an internal default setting that we inevitably return to, regardless of life's rewards or setbacks. In other words, a person who is chronically depressed will settle back to his or her normal down mood even when everything seems to be going well, while an optimist will tend toward good cheer even in the midst of sickness or disaster.
Yet some psychologists, most notably Martin Seligman in his books Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness, argue against the existence of an unalterable set point. Seligman maintains that working with our own thoughts and feelings can radically change our capacity for contentment—without the need for us to resort to Prozac.
The key word here is working. Seligman's underlying point—and here, psychology aligns itself with the wisdom tradition of yoga—is that contentment is something that has to be practiced.
Most of us know how to practice discontentment. We routinely sabotage our good moods by worrying about the future; bitching about our bosses; comparing our achievements, looks, and body weight with those of others; or telling ourselves negative stories about our lives and relationships. The yogic practices for getting to contentment are simply tactics for reversing these tendencies, for retraining our minds to view life from a different perspective. And these techniques are universally applicable—they can work for you whether you practice yoga or not.