Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Please Sir, Can I have some more?

When I was young, we found a shop that sold wonderful apple juice. We'd share it out between us  and I would linger over my glass and wish I had more. So one month I decided to save up my pocket money and buy a bottle all for myself. And  did. But somehow, although I now had more, it wasn't the same, it didn't taste as good....Despite having achieved my goal, I was still dissatisfied...

Why? I had got what I thought I wanted. I had more but it wasn't enough, somehow there was still more "more" out there. Timothy Miller suggests this is a common human experience and that the drive for more stands in the way of our happiness and enjoyment of now.

Miller, Timothy (1995) How to want what you have: Discovering the magic and grandeur of ordinary existence, New York, New York, Avon Books.
Evolution and instinctive drives
According to Miller, the desire for more comes from our evolutionary psychology.  Darwinian “selfish gene” (the idea that genes that add survival and reproduction are more likely to be passed on than those that don’t), is sometimes taken to mean our genes should  drive us to reproduce as often as we can. Miller suggests that the situation is more complex. We are not programmed simply to reproduce, but to reproduce successfully (in terms of producing healthy offspring who survive to reproducible age). For this we need to find a healthy (and successful) partner, with good genes and an environment where the offspring will be protected and looked after; and the more healthy, wealthy, successful and popular we are, the more likely we are to attract a good mate.  
Miller proposes that humans are geared to instinctive seek for three prerequisites to reproductive success:
Wealth  - an indicator of  being stronger, smarter, healthier or more industrious than others around you. Any surplus wealth  provides the opportunity to “buy” goods and favours so there is no limit of "enough" wealth.
Status  - in larger societies, status tended to depend on what an individual contributed to the survival of the society (a great warrior, hunter, healer etc).  In our modern world, status is a much more complex concept since there is no single status hierarchy (for example, we might be low in the pecking order at work, even when we are the head of our extended family). Even if you are temporarily top of your status hierarchy,  there is always the threat of loosing that position which drives the individual to constantly seek higher status. Plus where there is no agreed hierarchy, what kind of status should you seek?
Love - a slightly confusing term in modern life. In this context it, refers to altruism -  either kin (people with the same genes who have a vested interest in your genes continuing) or reciprocal (you scratch my back because I’ll scratch yours). So the bigger loving family you have, and the more good friends, the better.
Unfortunately, from an evolutionary perspective, there is no level that equates to “enough” wealth or status or love and so our instinctive drive is to endlessly seek for “more”.
How to want what you have

This drive for more is hardwired and is beyond our voluntary control but Miller suggest that we can learn to influence these involuntary functions indirectly using ideas from cognitive therapy. He suggest there are three things we need :
Compassion - recognising with empathy that other people are driven by the same basic drives as yourself even though they choose different strategies in their pursuit of wealth, status and love. And then acting compassionately in what we say and do.
Attention - being totally aware and focused on what is, in the here and now, without making any value judgement to label it as good or bad unless it is necessary to do so (when there is something you can do about the situation, and when doing that results in more good than harm). Unnecessary value judgements stunt curiosity and experience and perpetuate the insidious desire for things to be different.
Gratitude - relates to how you experience the world at a deeper level  than value judgements which just label experiences as good or bad. How you interpret the ambiguous stimulus of everyday life and perceive the world is, to some extent, a choice and is filtered through our interpretation, experience and expectation. By practicing gratitude, we modify the filter to one that promotes satisfaction and happiness "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." - Hamlet ,. Shakespeare; Act II, scene ii
Why does it matter?
Why does the drive for “more” matter? Isn’t this what leads us to strive and to achieve? What’s wrong with always wanting more?
Miller suggests its the cause of much unhappiness and dissatisfaction, and the negative emotions and behavior that go with that, such as greed, aggression. The drives for wealth, status and love are instinctive and involuntary and hardwired into our being but they evolved to deal with a very different environment than the one in which we now live. By practicing compassion, attention and gratitude we can quieten the voice of these drives which gives us space to consciously choose what we want to strive for and the opportunity to act consciously rather than simple re-act..  

What to do..... 

Try building a regular habit of compassion, attention and gratitude into your daily life. Miller has lots of suggestions for how to do this.

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