Are Your Goals Stressing You Out?

Thor Heyerdahl, the leader of the famous Ra and Kon-Tiki expeditions, was once sailing to the Marquesas islands in the south Pacific on a schooner commanded by Captain Brander. Thor quotes the captain as saying:

It's all crazy, but they [the islanders] want it, like everybody else. I detest our own civilization; that's why I'm here. Yet I spread it from island to island. They want it, once they have a little taste of it...Why do they want sewing-machines and tricycles, or underclothing and canned salmon? They don't need any of it. But they want to tell their neighbors: look here, I've got a chair and you're squatting on the floor. And then the neighbor also has to buy a chair, and something else not possessed by the first one. The needs increase. The expenditure. Then they have to work although they hate it. To earn money they don't need.

In every society in which people can improve their condition and become materially better off, they want to. This is true, whether those people are rich or poor. They all think (and so do you and I) that "if I just had a little more than I do now, I'd be happier." We are discontented by nature. Discontent is biologically wired into our nervous system. And in a way, it's good if it gets people off their rump and working on a purpose.

But the price is discontent. Can you work toward a better future while being content? Yes, you can, and there are two ways to go about it. One is by making your goal a duty, not a passionate desire, and then simply perform all the actions appropriate to the fulfillment of that goal as a sort of meditation, with your attention on an excellent performance of your duty, and without much thought or desire for the end goal. That's one way.

Another way is to alternate passionate desire — working toward a good with earnest expectation — with an occasional "contentment break." This is working toward your goal with your attention on the end, on the benefits you will gain from the accomplishment of that goal. This is feeling the desire for the goal, even making it an obsession, and certainly feeling very strongly about it, and then once in awhile, taking the time to appreciate where you are and what you have, and recognizing the truth that no matter where you are, there is much to appreciate, and no matter where you ultimately end up, there is really no end, but only a further goal to reach.

How can you "take the time to appreciate where you are and what you have?" You can start a propaganda campaign in your head (read more about how to do that here) using the statement, "That's not a need; I only prefer it." Say this to yourself. Make it a kind of slogan you say to yourself once in awhile. You can use it for small things or big things. And the best time to use it is when your passionate desire and positive expectation has turned to stress or pressure. At times like those, allow this statement to drift into your mind, and realize that the goal you have set is only a goal you have set, it is not a need, and you won't die without it. It is only a game you have set up, a preference you have created in your mind, and not a must.

This realization itself can create a contentment break because often the games we create for ourselves become real, like an actor forgetting he's on stage and feeling fully the emotions he's portraying. This slogan is like the director saying, "Cut. Okay, take a break everyone." The actor wakes up to the fact that this is all a game, that it's not real. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying reality is an illusion. I'm saying that your goal is not real. It doesn't exist out here. It exists in your mind.

Let me be even more clear. If your goal is a thing, like a house, it may, in fact, exist in reality, but the idea that you want to own that house, the goal of you owning that house is your own creation. The idea I want to own that house doesn't exist out here in the world. It exists in your head. It's something you made up.

I'm not putting down goals. I love goals. But sometimes you get so involved in striving for the goal that you forget this is all your game. It starts to feel real and serious and important. And as long as it feels good, fine. Have a good time. Keep it up. But when taking your goal serious starts causing you upset or stress or depression, remember it's not a need; you only prefer it.

This is similar to a little trick I've used for watching movies that become horrifying. Every once in awhile, a movie maker will throw in something disgusting for shock value. Times like that, instead of being repulsed (a sensation I don't care for), I remind myself that this is a movie, and I am watching special effects or good makeup or whatever. I bring myself out of the trance of the movie, and it prevents the feelings of shock or horror.

People do the same thing in any game — chess, basketball, poker. Games can be fun. But they can also be stressful and angering and depressing. At times like that, it's a good idea to remind yourself it's just a game. As "just a game" it's not so stressful or angering or depressing. But when you're so involved in it you forget it's a game, those feelings are very real and painful. It's not a good idea to stay detached from the game the whole time, because you miss out on the positive side of being fully involved in the game, something that can be very much fun. So only use this slogan when your involvement turns into negative feelings.

The same is true about the things you prefer: Your goals and wishes and intentions. When your child is misbehaving, and your goal is to help her be all she can be, as long as your involvement is enjoyable, be involved, be engrossed, and fully participate in the accomplishment of your purpose. But when your involvement turns to anger, remind yourself that it is only a preference that your child becomes all she can become. It is not a need. This allows you to step out of the "stage setting" for a moment and think about it. It allows you to calm down enough to deal with it well. Anger almost never accomplishes what you want.

This slogan gives you a way out. It allows you to pull yourself out of the painful struggle and brings you back to what you really want: a positive goal, something you prefer. From that frame of mind, you can enter the game and enjoy it. What can you do or say that will, starting from where you are right now, and where your child is right now, use this trouble to move you toward your goal? That orientation and that frame of mind will accomplish much more than a negative trance-like involvement where it feels like a must, a need, a dire necessity, or something that has to happen. That's no fun and makes you less effective anyway, so you might as well drop it. And if you can't drop it, remember that wanting to drop it is not a need or a must either; you only prefer it.

Let me be extra clear here. The thing to realize is that you're fine already — you don't need to accomplish your goals. You may want to, but realize that it is want, for fun, not out of necessity. It is on top of what you already have: you get plenty to eat already, you're already warm enough, you already get plenty of oxygen. You're fine already. You're there.

When researchers studied rural villagers in Samoa, they found very low levels of cortisol, which is present in fairly high amounts in most people most of the time in modern countries. Cortisol is a "stress hormone." It is produced by feelings of anxiety.

And when a Western anthropologist wanted to study depression in the Kaluli people of New Guinea, his research was cut short because they didn't have depression.

Many of our ills are caused by too many choices, too much desire, too many possibilities. It creates a kind of frenzy of ambition, and a mad scramble to attain the "good life." But it also creates anxiety, depression, frustration, and stress. Often chronic. We don't need all the things we think are so important. We merely prefer them, and when we realize that, we get a break from the stress. Go ahead and have goals and pursue them in order to attain flow, but be unattached to the results, the outcomes, etc. Remind yourself constantly of what you don't need to be happy or survive.

Adam Khan is the author of Slotralogy, Direct Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of What Difference Does It Make?: How the Sexes Differ and What You Can Do About It. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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