Synthetic Happiness

What are our real needs? What makes them real? If we get to the bare bones of needs for survival, the list is very short:

– Relatively comfortable temperature

– breathable air

 – the absence of prompt danger – let’s say that we are not being chased by a large predator or zapped by lightning.

The rest is not really immediate. If we expand this from the momentarily state, other factors come in play like fresh water and food, shelter and companionship. Let’s just stick with the need of the present moment for a minute, without taking into account of the myriads of not immediate needs as a non-stop concern. How many of those needs are actual needs in each given moment? How many of the needs besides breathing are real for you, RIGHT NOW? It is absolutely not my intention to question the validity of needs for love, closeness, nutrition, safety and so on. I just wish to sort out how much of our declared needs are actual needs and how much of them do we design to masquerade as needs, creating them for ourselves. If you are sitting in your comfy chair, reading this entry on your tablet/laptop what else do you need? Munchies? Water? A glass of wine? The ideas arise and the setup that was perfectly comfortable a minute ago is not comfortable at all anymore. What have changed? The chair, the room, the temperature?

Some say this is how we push ourselves out of paradise every minute, with the hyperactive mind that is creating cravings and wants every second that we interpret as real needs. Not one single industry is counting on this – actually most of our economy is built on “needs” we are trying to fulfill every single minute. The need for a new pair of shoes, the need for another cocktail, the need for ice cream, the need for a lover, the need for internet… The list is endless. Which ones of those are valid needs and which ones are not? Where is the actual line between those two kinds of needs? Who decides that? Is it the same for everyone? Of course, not.

I grew up next to a war-zone – and I thank my fortune for not growing up in an actual one. As being next door neighbors to a genocide territory, we had refugees from time to time, and I did not have to go all the way to another continent to see children whose needs were very different from mine. These children had zero needs for sweets, for fancy toys, for new clothes or gadgets. They were very grateful to get these delicacies when they did get them, but treated them as a bonus. A bonus on top of having their needs already met which meant nobody was blown up, bleeding, screaming, shooting, raping and hurting anyone around them. Their needs were very-very different from my needs. Just being able to sit still in bright daylight without constant immediate danger and having basic nutrition available; having clothes covering their bodies and constantly comfortable temperature (meaning heating in winter) were all they needed to be completely satisfied with their circumstances, at least physically. They had not imagined a better scenario until it came. When the Christmas cakes, candies and toys arrived, they did not binge as you would imagine. It was more like a careful approach to these luxury items to see what they were good for. Have they formed a “need” around cakes later on? I cannot know that, I wasn’t there later.

The question I am trying to get to is this: how do we actually know that what we think we need -we really need? In one of her workshops, Byron Katie asked a woman if she really needed what she stated she needed [from someone else]. The answer was unsure and hesitant. To simplify the process, Katie asked her this question: “are you still breathing?” The woman started laughing. Yes, she was breathing. This means no, she did not NEED that other person to do things for her to live. How many times do we believe our life literally depends on owning something, getting an answer we want, being accepted by someone, not losing something we have, and so on? Many of those things are utterly important for the quality of life we wish to have, no doubt. And do they literally mean life or death? Sometimes. However, as of the statistics, pretty rarely. Really-really rarely. What also happens sometimes, that in retrospect, we bless the rejection of the mortgage or a job, or bless the engagement that did not happen years before, recognizing that if we would have got what we wanted back then, we would not have what we have now. They are both possible outcomes (together with many other outcomes), yet we see only one in our mind’s eye, when we are in the situation; the possibly fatal one. The most horrific outcome when our “needs” are not met. Is it really our needs though, that are not met? Or they are wishes? Desires? Wants? Cravings? Obsessions? Hard to pick, right? The lines between those are definitely blurry and there must be overlaps. What I am trying to explore here whether it is actually a weight that we put on our own shoulders when we attach such a loaded meaning to a possible outcome…?

Dan Gilbert says we can synthesize happiness. Synthesizing happiness is, for example, when you start liking something you have because you have it and you do not have a choice of having something else instead. He also says that we often chose not to synthesize happiness when we could. What does that mean? It partially means that we can actually make things better for ourselves, however the tendency shows that we more often make things worse in our minds. We have an ability to predict the future like no other species on this planet can – hence the development of the human brain. Predictions are very useful, except when they are not. Studies show that our predictions of what a possible outcome means in terms of our future, is often way off. The fact that we think we know what is coming and what that means in our lives narrows it down to the one or few scenarios we can think of, and solidifies it in our system. This is the opposite of allowance of any possible, unforeseeable, and often much better outcomes. This amazing brain of ours can play tricky games with us. Gilbert lines up a bunch of people who are claiming that they are better off after losing their fame or fortune, or the “golden opportunity” that they blew beforehand. We may feel skepticism rising here and interject something like “yeah, right! They just say that because…” which may be the case, but it is also possible that these guys are genuinely feeling great in their own skin. They may have synthesized that happiness – true – but who is better off in the present moment? Them – or the ones wallowing in the past loss continuously blaming others and themselves?

Here is my contemplation after breathing through this whole topic; the thing is, whatever outcome we can project into the future can be based on the past and only on the past: experiences, conditioning, upbringing, knowledge base; learned ways of thinking, feeling and understanding. We never fear the unknown, only what we think of the unknown is causing the fear. We cannot fear something we do not know, only something we know from the past and believe will happen in the future. If we build up a need for something based on what we lack, or based on what we think will make us safe (and happy), and we make that need as real as possible for ourselves by having a very concrete outcome as the only acceptable and possible road to happiness – that is not one self-burden, but many. How can we breathe in that setup? Heavily. What else is there to do, you may ask. Good old awareness. Awareness that our needs have functions and without questioning the validity of them, we cannot see how true they are. Only if we look at them closely. A “need” for a pair of stilettos/cupcake/cigarette/Martini can be very valid, but it does not have to be the only single solution. Maybe if we breathe through it with the question: “What are my actual needs that I try to address with the beer, with the next pair of boots or with the new tablet”? The answers you find may be very simple at their core. The need to feel comforted, the need to feel understood, the need to feel safe, the need to feel connected, the need to feel appreciated, and some others, but not too many. The roots of human needs will be our next breathing exercise.