What are the processes that shape our ideas and actions? And what do they have to do with the game of Whack-A-Mole?
As a child we just follow our every need to gain pleasure or avoid discomfort. ‘I want a cookie and I’ll cry until I get it!’ but also ‘I won’t steal a cookie from the jar, because then my mom will punish me’.
As we grow older, and we enter the adolescent stage, this behavior might distill into some generic principles that have proven themselves efficient in avoiding discomfort and following pleasure (e.g. ‘Stealing is bad’).
Not everybody makes it all the way from there to adulthood though, which is living for an actual set of values, an actual morality. And it is this morality what will give our lives meaning in the long run.
The real difference between pleasure-inducing principles and full-grown values is that values are unconditional. An adult that holds the value of honesty high will refrain from lying, or correct himself after he realizes he has been dishonest, because he knows that it is the right thing to do.
On the other hand, a person that has only held the principle of honesty high will do the same because he fears the consequences of his lying if he would get caught. Instead of being honest because it’s the right thing to do, he will avoid lying as a means to satisfy some need (or avoid some discomfort) at this very moment.
And let’s be frank. Being stuck in the adolescent stage sucks. Everything you do, every principle you follow to guide your actions throughout the day, is aimed at satisfying one need after the other. Our needs pop up like a game of Whack-A-Mole. It is to wack one need in the head, only to realize that another need has popped up: Eating ice-cream *WACK*. Having a heated discussion on some obscure internet forum *WACK*. Masturbating *WACK* (…WANK..?).
And there is an important reason that chasing one need after the other, that playing this endless game of Whack-a-Mole, is as pointless as they come.
Our brain has evolved in such a way that we should never be permanently depressed or permanently satisfied with our life. Adaptation level theory shows that people from all cultures and social strata pretty much always report a happiness level of 7 out of 10. Working as a supermarket cashier? 7. Saving lives in the hospital surgery rooms? 7. Being the president of the United States? 7. (Alright, maybe a 6… Seems pretty stressful…). Working for 1 dollar a year in a shoe factory in Bangladesh? That’s right, 7.
After big life events such as marriage, our self reported life satisfaction normalizes back to a baseline value within just a few years.
Our brain adapts our happiness baseline to our current life situation. And this makes total sense evolutionary. Our emotions are completely useless if we’re always happy. If we don’t get happy feelings as reward for good food, sleep or sex why bother doing these things? From a happiness perspective, the only thing that we accomplished through science by improving our health and life standards, is that we shifted our suffering from physical to psychological pain.
The idea that satisfying all our needs will somehow make us happy is therefore a powerful illusion. Of course, we all need sleep, food and appropriate levels of rest. But the added value of fulfilling the next, and the next, and the next need quickly reduces to zero. And it is for this reason, that we should live our life based on our values instead of our needs.
Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destinyMahatma Gandhi
When you follow your own values, no matter the direct discomfort that this might introduce into your life in the short-term, you demonstrate that you hold your values high for the simple reason that they are the right thing to do. It is impossible to not influence the people around you when you are living in the image of your values. Ideas are contagious, you see.
Through living strong values we can be confident that we are making the world a better place, regardless of the little slip-ups we will make from time to time. We should worry less about the consequences of our behavior today, and more about the values that drive your behavior in the years to come!
No matter how much wealth is generated in the world, the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our character, and the quality of our character is determined by our relationship to our painMark Manson