Contrasting joy and satisfaction

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Contrasting joy and satisfaction

We live for the pursuit of pleasure as a culture. As a species, we tend to focus our efforts on obtaining pleasure and avoiding discomfort. By performing this action, we anticipate improving our mood. Still, many people never feel the kind of happiness and contentment that lasts a lifetime.

The two terms, "happiness" and "pleasure," are not interchangeable. A wonderful dinner, an increase in our stock price, making passionate love, etc., are all examples of external events that may temporarily elevate our mood and make us happy. Feeling good about ourselves and the world around us is fundamental to experiencing pleasure. Happiness may be triggered in the short term by engaging in pleasurable activities, but it quickly fades since it is conditional on the occurrence of other events. In order to maintain our current level of satisfaction, we need to continually increase our consumption of pleasurable stimuli such as food, drugs or alcohol, money, sexual activity, and material possessions. Consequently, many individuals develop an addiction to these extrinsic experiences since they need ever-increasing amounts to get the same level of transient satisfaction.

Thomas came to see me for therapy because he "had everything": a thriving company, a nice family life, plenty of free time, and a supportive spouse. But he still wasn't content. Even while he sometimes felt joy when enjoying a baseball game or catching up with friends, he mostly felt nervous and melancholy. Anxiety had become so extreme that it was now being blamed by his doctor for almost continual stomach aches.

As time went on, I saw that Thomas's driving motivation was the desire to exert dominion over others and circumstances. He wished for conformity, for everyone to think and act as he did. He had a habit of passing harsh judgment on his coworkers, family, and friends, certain that he was always right and they were always wrong, and that it was his duty to set them straight. In an attempt to get his message over and have people do things his way, his energy would harden and become more like that of a steamroller. Thomas had a brief rush of satisfaction when his plan succeeded and his opponents capitulated. But the pain in his stomach kept getting worse, which made him come to me for help.

Thomas wanted to have control of his emotions, so he would critique himself just as severely as he did others in an attempt to improve his performance and his mood. When he was rejected by others, he was extra hard on himself, thinking to himself he was a worthless jerk.

Together, we helped Thomas see that he could find more joy in life by letting go of his judgemental, controlling tendencies and instead focusing on being a kind, loving, sensitive, and gentle person with himself and others. By not becoming attached to the outcome of things and not attempting to control the course of events and the conduct of others, Thomas discovered that pleasure is the natural consequence of being present in each moment with love and compassion toward himself and others. As he learned, he felt a surge of happiness anytime he abandoned his need for control and opted for compassion instead. The knot of worry in his gut would go away whenever he set out to be a helpful, supportive person rather than a domineering one.

It takes tremendous effort to replace an obsession with control with an interest in self-and other-love and compassion. A control freak, our ego-wounded self has been practicing since we were little. But the minute our goal is control, our hearts harden and we experience internal isolation and stress. Instead of feeling secure and happy, we end up feeling abandoned and empty as we try to find safety and pleasure by exerting control over other people, events, and our own emotions. If we attempt to suppress our emotions instead of being kind and compassionate to ourselves, we end up abandoning ourselves. Because of our worries and a lack of fulfillment, we look for happiness elsewhere. Subsequently, the addicting behavior that results from the short-lived pleasure is regretted.

When we refocus our attention from trying to exert or avoid control to learning to love ourselves and others, we find that our hearts expand and our spirits soar. Those who act based on the spiritual ideals of love, compassion, and kindness will always be rewarded with a deep and lasting state of happiness. 

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