Positive psychologists are fascinated by what raises our mood, but it was Aristotle who identified two pathways to conscious happiness:
Fulfillment: Using our gifts and talents on behalf of what matters to us
Contentment: Experiencing pleasurable moments and being satisfied with life
This time of year people spend a fair amount of time searching for the perfect gifts to make their loved ones content. Acquiring new toys and gadgets does make us happier—for a while. A new toy, or even car, is exciting as the dopamine kicks in, but eventually the brain gets familiar with the new item and searches for something else new. The “feel-good” just doesn’t last. This phenomenon is known as the “hedonistic treadmill,” or the tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events.
As a capitalistic society, “Got to have it! Got it! Want something else!” is not only the norm, it is the underpinning of American culture. But, not only is this behavior of constant consumption ultimately unfulfilling, it is destructive to our Earth. Right now we inhabit the planet with nearly 7.5 billion other people. In trying to understand this enormous number, consider that more people have been born in the last 50 years, than the previous 4 million years. Logically, more people on the planet means more consumption of finite resources.
In 2009, Swedish and Australian scientists Johan Rockström and Will Steffen led a group of prominent scientists, including Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, that proposed a framework of “planetary boundaries” designed to define a “safe operating space for humanity.” The group identified nine “planetary life support systems” essential for human survival, and attempted to quantify just how far these systems have been pushed already. They then estimated how much further we can go before our own survival is threatened; beyond these boundaries there is a risk of “irreversible and abrupt environmental change” which could make Earth less habitable. Their research indicates that three of these boundaries—climate change, biodiversity loss, and the biogeochemical flow (aka nitrogen cycle) boundaries—have already been crossed.
The possibility that three planetary boundaries have already been crossed is jaw-dropping and daunting. Since most of us aren’t world leaders, it’s hard to know where to start and what could make an impact. What is the remedy to this “never enough” syndrome? Gratitude. As it turns out, dopamine and other uplifting chemicals are released by the acts of gratitude and savoring. This is because our dopamine output increases not only when we experience something pleasurable the first time, but again when we remember it—so we get a double dose, or triple! It encourages our brains to pay attention to what we have and give it a lasting effect and meaning.
So does this mean you should just show your loved ones pictures of what you gave them last year and tell them that you hope they still like it? That might not be popular, but what if gifts weren’t the focus of festivities? What about making a group activity like caroling, volunteering, baking or a sleigh ride the focus? What if families taught their children to have a different relationship with belongings? It’s true that some material goods are essential and life-saving, a lot of stuff is just stuff. It’s not the gifts that make the season great, it’s the gratitude for all of life’s blessings. Happy holidays!