“The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove”
There are some things in life we can change. There are some things in life we cannot change. Knowing which is which is the key to our well-being.
Dr. Johnson was not a man to mince his words, and offers us one of his typically bracing edicts. It may strike us at first as being somewhat of an overstatement to suggest that desiring to change something other than ourselves will bring unhappiness rather than the happiness we seek, but the good Doctor, as usual, is very astute.
When we begin by assuming that the cause of happiness or unhappiness lies outside of the mind, we make a fundamental and tragic error. This is a viewpoint that has been held by religious and philosophical leaders for millennia and which is also borne out by scientific research.
It seems that each of us has a “happiness set point” — a kind of hedonic thermostat — to which the mind tends to gravitate. From day to day our happiness may fluctuate on either side of this set point, so that one day we are pleased or elated while the next we are disgruntled or depressed. But on the whole our level of happiness will tend to settle down around our hedonic set point, just as water slopping around in a shaken glass will find its own level.
So although we may direct our energies to “fixing” the outside world in order to remove sources of irritation or to fulfill our desires, in the long term this will make no real difference to our level of happiness. We may be ecstatic to win a fortune in the lottery, but a year later we’ll be back at that set point of happiness. Similarly, we may be devastated by an injury or illness, but some time later we’ll adapt and be just as happy (or unhappy) as we were before.
Our individual hedonic set point may well be influenced by our genes, but genes are not destiny and our attitudes also play a major role in how we experience life. It is within that we must look if we are to find greater levels of happiness in the long run.
Those who meditate have been shown to demonstrate long term increased levels of well-being and rewiring of the brain with increased activity in those parts of the frontal cortex associated with happiness.
We can’t choose the things that happen to us in life, but we can learn — through developing mindfulness — to respond differently to those events. By developing more patience, kindness and, perhaps above all, a greater appreciation of impermanence, we can learn to adapt to life’s challenges more elegantly and in ways that lead to less suffering. This is not to say that we can’t make changes in the outside world or that such changes will make no difference to our sense of well-being. But if we seek to change our environment without changing ourselves, then we are in for a difficult time.