It’s an unending human cycle. We want something one day, achieve it the next, only to be left wanting something else the following day. This phenomenon of having but wanting is fundamental to the human experience.
And yet it seems to make us miserable. Those of us who make $32,400 a year or more are among the 1% of highest earners on the planet, but this abundance of material wealth apparently makes little difference in our perennially frustrated, dissatisfied minds. Middle and upper class Americans are on the precipice of the historical effort to invest in future generations, reaping vast dividends from the investments of their ancestors and the losses of the marginalized, but are too hacked off by inconsiderate drivers and disingenuous politicians to notice.
Why in this comparatively peaceful and prosperous time and place are we preoccupied with bad things? Why is it so easy to take electricity, indoor plumbing, and wireless internet for granted?
On a fundamental level, the phenomenon of attention is behind this deadweight loss of human happiness. Our brains are adept at drawing connections between concepts and experiences, but what happens to the individual parts once a connection has been drawn between them? Their particularities are thrust to the margins of the mind, conveniently compartmentalized someplace where they take up less RAM. Once we solve a problem, we refocus our attention on a new one.
In this respect, today’s preoccupation is tomorrow’s prosperity. The human tendency to live bereft of gratitude entails the future-orientation responsible for the current habitat of comfort, so in a certain light it’s a catch-22. We have the marvels of modern medicine thanks to the generations of doctors and scientists who were unsatisfied merely curing the most prevalent and miserable diseases, and today afflictions aplenty remain on the docket for eradication, leaving little time to be thankful for the absence of polio from our lives.
It appears to be our fate; no matter how good we have it, we insist that it get better. But what if, with a little discernment, it was possible to continue gift-wrapping the future without ignoring our own present? (Pun intended.)
The solution starts by recognizing that most day-to-day problems we perceive have little to no bearing on the future. It may immediately feel like everyone except you is inept because one inattentive person cut you off in traffic, or like nothing ever works right because your phone won’t send a picture message. But you’ll forget how angry the bad driver made you as soon as you reach your destination, and you’ll forget how frustrating your smartphone was as soon as you have better reception.
Why not skip the unnecessary step of feeling miserable in such inconsequential circumstances? Instead of wasting attention on the loser who cut you off, why not save some focus for the fact that you’re sitting in a horseless carriage harnessing energy from controlled explosions, traveling wherever you want to go in minutes instead of days and staying warm and dry along the way?
In this way, we can build a brighter tomorrow without unnecessarily darkening today. We can start by realizing that most of our preoccupations aren’t actually contributing to any kind of better day at all, but rather, to our own misery.
If we live like our lives will someday end (and, *ahem* spoiler alert…), then none of this actually looks all that elevated - least of all the silly daily frustrations poxing our experience.
This Thanksgiving, ask yourself: how much time do I spend feeling bad? How much of what vexes me actually has any effect on the future? Where can I train my focus instead? When we point our attention in the right direction, we begin to feel gratitude. And gratitude deserves a place in all our lives, not just on Thanksgiving.