A couple of thousand years ago or thereabouts the Roman Stoics practised a mental exercise (as in, for the mind; not as in, my mate Jonny puts ketchup on everything—he’s so mental) as an antidote to what’s much more recently been termed ‘hedonic adaptation.’
We’ll return to the Stoics shortly, via an age-old fable, but first, hedonic adaptation is, essentially, the phenomenon of wanting something new, getting it, and then pretty quickly getting bored of it.
It’s something I’m sure everyone’s familiar with.
Wanting a new car/house/job/relationship/whatever.
That whatever becomes the object of your desire, the answer to your prayer, the moly to your holy grail:
The shiny new Mercedes; the 4-bed semi with kitchen side return; the Marketing Director promotion; the beautiful woman who stirs your loins and emotion. And sometimes you’re lucky enough to get what you want and it’s every bit as good as you’d hoped.
The car eats up the tarmac like a beast; the galaxy of stars displayed through the symmetrical skylights of your swanky side return has never seen such successfully presented soirées; as the Marketing Director you have an assistant who brings you coffee and respect; the beautiful woman who stirred both your loins and emotion isn’t only beautiful, she’s also the first person to truly, finally, get you.
Ahhhh, at last, life is good…
And then, comically quickly in fact – absurdly so given the force of importance previous placed on the attainment of the object of desire – you start to notice:
The little rattling sound coming from the rear panel when you accelerate that makes you think I bet that doesn’t happen on a Porsche; a polished concrete dinner table that’d suit the new space much better; that the Managing Director gets croissants with her coffee, goddamnit, that’s true respect; that I do like my new girlfriend, but I wish she wasn’t so patronising with her assumptions about who I am.
And so on.
And on and on. Never, ever satisfied.
But it need not be so, said the Stoics. They twigged this bug in the human system, this forever-wanting mind, and they figured out some ways to counter it, to drop the constant wanting and to feel contentment and tranquillity instead.
One such way is the mental exercise of negative visualisation. The idea with this is to periodically consider what your life would be like if conditions were worse than they currently are. So, for instance, rather than getting frustrated that your mid-range Mercedes isn’t a Porsche, consider what your morning commute would be like on the bus; instead of coveting the polished concrete table, imagine if your house were flooded, ruining your whole ground floor; rather than coveting croissants with your coffee, imagine if some terrible trauma took away your ability to swallow; instead of wishing your girlfriend were different, consider how lonely you were before.
And so on.
And on and on. Little by little becoming more content and satisfied with things exactly as they are.
The idea of negative visualisation is rather nicely, if inversely, illustrated by the fable of the crowded house. Credit must go to LS who told it to me recently and who I can only hope won’t mind my remixed version:
A man lives in a small, cramped dwelling and his lack of space is making him miserable. So he goes to the local Wise Woman and says, “Look here. I’ve got a tiny little shit’ole of a house and it’s not half getting me down, old Wise Woman. What say you to that?” And Wise Woman says, “Get a chicken.”
Bit weird, he thinks, but she’s not been wrong yet, so he gets a chicken. Now it’s him and a chicken in his tiny hovel and the chicken’s squawking, shitting and shedding feathers and the miserable man feels even more miserable than before. He goes back to Wise Woman and he says, “I got a chicken like you said but it’s made things even worse.”
“Get a goat,” says Wise Woman.
This bint’s lost the plot, he thinks, but he gives her the benefit of the doubt and gets a goat. Now it’s him and a goat and a chicken and the goat’s an angry, spitting bastard and the chicken’s still fowling (geddit?) up the place, and the man’s even more miserable again. He goes back to Wise Woman in a right old huff, and he says, “I got a goat to add to the chicken but now I’ve got even less space!”
“Get a cow,” says Wise Woman.
You nutty old broad, he mutters to himself as he walks away, but still, he follows her counsel. Now it’s him and a cow and a goat and a chicken inside his little shack and the stink and racket and chaos is quite literally driving him up the walls. He goes back to the Wise Woman, his eyes mad from lack of sleep, his hair on end, all covered in animal crap and he says, “Now you listen to me, Wise Woman, I got the chicken, I got the goat, I got the cow, all like you says, and not only am I not less miserable, I’m the most miserable I’ve ever been!”
“Now get rid of them,” says Wise Woman. So the man gets rid of them.
And never has he loved his dwelling more.
As I say, credit goes to LS. Since I’m in the credit-giving mood I’d like to give my mum her due credit for trying to get me to think this way while I’ve been unwell. Things could always be worse. Be grateful that they aren’t. Sorry mum if I was grouchy when you tried.
And since, one paragraph later, I’m still in the credit-giving mood, I’d like to point your attention in the direction of someone else who deserves a whole load of it. My friend, Tom Lawton, is an inventor, an inventor with movie star looks no less, and his latest project, Wonder, is a thing of sheer beauty and artistry. It’s a “kinetic, ethereal, meditative sculpture” which took its inspiration from my dad and his good friend, Stephen, practising Qigong. Tom has a Kickstarter campaign going here, with a beautiful short film about it, and I’m sure he’d be grateful for any pledge you can afford if it takes your fancy. And if you feel like reading more about the whole idea, Tom’s story of Wonder is here.
And with that I wish you week of chickens, goats and cows. And love and wonder.