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Life’s Little Problem – Always Full, Never Complete

Life’s Little Problem – Always Full, Never Complete

Sometimes I don’t understand what my problem is; I always just want something more from life. I don’t know what I want and I don’t know why I want it, but I’m never really satisfied, not for long anyway. It’s like I’m frantically rushing to catch life’s flight, afraid that I’ll miss it, but I don’t really know what flight is it that I need to catch and I don’t know which airport it takes off from!

This need for more starts pretty early. In school it’s the marks –should be higher than the next guy, in college it’s the looks – should be better than the next guy, at work it’s the compensation package – should be fatter than the next guy. Life as a whole, well, has to be fuller than the next guy. Has to be at that maximum level of everything, but somehow, even when you reach that maximum, you start worrying about a new maximum, it doesn’t end.

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Sure, wanting more is a good thing, ambition makes the world progress, but why is there always this feeling of discontentment? Striving for the best is great, but why does it come with a constant restlessness and fear of missing out?

Why is life always so full, but never fully complete?

You know who is complete? A 5 year old child, just take a look at one – raucous  screaming, clothes in disarray, dirt on the face, running about stepping on people’s toes and making them jump (my toes still hurt from the one who stepped on mine today). So effortlessly complete. Doesn’t need to get anything, doesn’t need to be anyone. We were all there at a point in time, and then somewhere between 5 and 15, we became incomplete.

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We were taught that we need to do extra, to achieve extra, to stay ahead – but even as we learnt ambition, no one seems to have noticed that we also learnt that ‘we are not enough’. The more we learnt about all the things we needed to do and be, we also unlearnt how to love ourselves as we are. Even as we learnt to be at the top of everything, we forgot how to accept ourselves when we are not at the top.

We all learnt social etiquette, but we never learnt how to treat our own selves

I wonder, among all the math lessons we were taught, why didn’t they knock off one of those barely survivable trigonometry lessons and teach us how to love ourselves. Honestly, we need to spend some time on this one – ‘How to love the person you will spend the rest of your life with’ – guess who – YOU!

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People write a hundred odes to unconditional undying love for partners, for parents, for children, for friends, for animals – why not an ode to unconditional self love. We celebrate the fact that we can love the people in our lives irrespective of their flaws but we cannot even bring ourselves to accept our own flaws…leave alone love ourselves despite them. Of the hours and hours we spend obsessing over whether ‘XYZ’ likes us, we don’t even dedicate a minute to asking whether we like ourselves.

If we were to take all the adults on earth and give them a test on self acceptance and love – more than half the world would be sitting in detention trying to make up credit for the subject they just flunked!

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As long as we are failing at that subject, no matter how much we stuff our life and make it overflow with success and social recognition, our discontentment and need for more will not go. We will keep looking for that external validation – something out there that will help us feel like we have done everything we need to do, proven everything that we need to prove. Well, there is nothing out there and we know it. If in our heads we are not good enough, we will never feel good enough. One could win the Nobel Prize and feel great for a few days until that voice in the head starts whining again – do extra, achieve extra, stay ahead – you are not good enough!

The fact is simple enough – all we need, to be complete, is a little bit of love, to give to ourselves. A little acceptance for being average, even as we strive for the best. A little kindness towards our own failures even as we pursue success. All it needs really, is to look in the mirror every once in a while and say “Well lousy fellow, you need to stop lazing around, you need to stop messing up, you really need to stop skipping gym and eating those donuts – and – I love you.”

Featured photo credit: www.consciouslifestylemag.com via consciouslifestylemag.com

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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