Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert, provides an interesting way to look at the niyama of santosha, or contentment. Gilbert explains is very difficult for us to accurately predict what we will find to be satisfying. We often move towards goals which will not prove to be as rewarding or fulfilling as we expect. With an assimilation of interesting studies, we get a different perspective on what it means to make decisions from our true self.
Lessons for Yogis:
1) Imagination: “Pre-feeling often allows us to better predict our emotions than logical thinking does.” (page 134) When we use our imaginations in decision-making, and respond more from the gut, we may be more satisfied with our decision than if we make it from extensive use of logic. There are limits to how our senses can imagine, of course, and we want to make sure we imagine all the components of our decision, not just the best parts. But it’s good to consider how we feel about something, not just if it looks good on paper!
2) Meditation: Our frontal lobe is one thing that makes us different from animals: it’s the part of the brain that allows us to imagine the future. Sometimes, this takes over, and it doesn’t make us happier! Gilbert explains the challenge of meditation this way: “As anyone who has ever tried to learn meditation knows, not thinking about the future is much more challenging than being a psychology professor. Not to think about the future requires that we convince our frontal lobe not to do what it was designed to do, and like a heart that is told not to beat, it naturally resists this suggestion… Mental simulations of the future arrive in our consciousness regularly and unbidden, occupying every corner of our mental lives. ” (p17) So, by cultivating presence through meditation, we are doing challenging work to have better control over our minds. So, our frontal lobe as a tool for planning when we need it – and it can quiet down a bit when we don’t.
3) Presence: This is an interesting one: “When researchers actually count the items that float along in the average person’s stream of consciousness, they find that about 12 percent of our daily thoughts are about the future. In other words, every eight hours of thinking includes an hour of thinking about things that have yet to happen. If you spent one out of every eight hours living in my state you would be required to pay taxes, which is to say that in some very real sense, each of us is a part-time resident of tomorrow.” (p17) Good point! So in one hour, that might be 7 minutes spent thinking about the future. In an hour-long yoga class, what do you observe about your thoughts? Are you in the present or future?
4) Simplicity: As we’ve heard countless times, money doesn’t buy happiness: “Market economies require that we all have an insatiable hunger for stuff, and if everyone were content with the stuff they had, then the economy would grind to a halt. But if this is a significant economic problem, it is not a significant personal problem.” (page 240). In yoga, this really lines up with the yamas – non-harming, non-stealing, non-attachment, moderation, truthfulness. Certainly when we are lacking financial stability, it’s tough to get out of that first chakra of getting our basic needs met, and that can make it a lot more difficult to be happy and peaceful. But we’re invited here to really question how happy our purchases make us: “Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.” (page 241)
I really like this customer review – with 8 points from the book — this will give you a good idea of what the big messages are.
If you’d like to check out this book for yourself, I bet you can find it – a used copy or tree-free . I listened to the audiobook (and I have to admit, it was on a cross-country trip, so for parts of it I did that thing where you speed it up to 2x… perhaps not the most patient, present thing). It’s very interesting, with a light tone – even if you find some lines cheesy, you’ll probably be laughing at parts. I first heard about Daniel Gilbert’s work through an interview in The Atlantic on that same trip.