November is by far and away my favorite holiday month for a simple reason - Thanksgiving. The American Thanksgiving is one of the few non-desirous holiday the western world has got - a holiday dedicated to the proposition that people should take out some time to be grateful for the riches they already possess. As the pace of life continues to quicken, our human relationships become more and more fragmented, and our attention is scattered to the wind it is nice to have the institution of Thanksgiving to look forward to at the end of this month - a Zen-like call towards being here now and appreciating what we have.
Many of us have a lot to be grateful for: a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, clothing to keep us warm, family and friends to share life with, etc. But - how many of you know someone - perhaps many someone's - perhaps yourself - who might have some or all of the above things and still have difficulty appreciating them? Or find that these things are okay but to harbor just a little bit of shame that you are stuck with these things and not the upgraded better model. . .
My point is this - a persons ability to be grateful is quite independent of that persons possession of things to be grateful about. Having things doesnt mean youll be grateful for them. Ill go further and venture to say that the ability to feel gratefulness is a key part of mental health. To the extent that a person cannot experience gratitude they are suffering.
What is it that prevents a person from being able to experience gratitude? The causes are many. However, one important cause has to do with our willingness to desire ideas over reality.
Sometimes people get stuck on an idea. It could be the idea that they are too poor, or that a truly perfect mate exists out there somewhere. The idea might take many forms but the underlying message of the idea is that things are not good as they are - that there is an ideal state out there and that happiness is only possible if this ideal state (becoming rich, finding that perfect spouse) is achieved.
It is easy to develop this fixation in western society. In fact - if you havent developed this fixation youre somewhat of a cultural misfit. We are constantly being marketed to by people who want to sell us stuff. Knowing that we have little incentive to buy things that we dont think we need, marketers take the tact of creating or awakening needs within us that help us to want to buy things. The tact that is often taken by marketers is to suggest that life as it is is not actually as good as it should be - and that this condition could be fixed with the purchase of what they are selling. In essence marketers focus our attention on what we lack (rather than what we possess) and in so doing awaken in us a painful recognition of inadequacy. Because marketers want to sell us stuff - the idealized solution to this inadequacy feeling they offer is presented in terms of a material paradise - a shiny new car (with leather interior), a bigger home, better clothing, a DVD player or a faster computer, the right dress or suit, a straighter nose or larger breasts.
We cant blame the marketers for taking this tactic. After all - they didnt invent this sort of thinking - they just expanded upon a set of ideas that are as old as western civilization itself.
To trace the origin of this sort of idealism we would need to go back at least as far as ancient Greece and check out the philosopher Plato (c. 429-347 BCE) who taught that reality was not to be found in what actually existed but rather in what ideally existed somewhere in the hypothetical realm of forms - a sort of spiritual warehouse of the gods wherein the essential form of all that exists was stored. According to this doctrine - a chair that you would sit in was but an imperfect approximation of the ideal chair form - the perfect chair found only in the realm of forms. A core message of Platos idealism was that reality and perfection are impossible for humans to possess directly. Embedded in this idea is a rejection of the world as it exists in favor of the world as it ought to exist. Imagine that - 2500 years ago and already were being set up for misery.
A similar twist on idealism takes place during the European middle ages with the development/invention of romantic love. Originally a sort of spiritual and chaste devotion of a knight towards a married lady (and vice-versa), the idea subsequently morphed into the expectation that unending bliss and ecstasy could be found within marriage (e.g., and they lived happily ever after). Of course (for many of us anyway) this is just not true (at least the part about unending). Like any relationship, marriage and romantic relationships in general need to be continually and effortfully worked on or they tend to go stale. However, the reality of the situation doesnt stop us from wanting the dream of unending bliss for no effort - and the state of wanting this bliss can be painful and can lead to even more painful outcomes such as adultery, loneliness and divorce. For instance, I have known persons who, after years of marriage have sought out affairs in the belief that the new partner will bring back the lost sense of bliss. I have also known single persons who have habitually (and unconsciously) rejected potential dating partners because none could stack up to an imagined (or in some cases remembered) idealized partner. In both cases chasing after an idealized vision of how things could be is also a rejection of the possibilities that are available right now.
I could go on but the essence of what I have to say is this -
With some important exceptions (notably abusive relationships and extreme poverty) persons desiring idealized visions (of material goods, of love relationships) will not become happier people when they pursue these visions for the simple reasons that desire tends to be insatiable and that happiness and desire tend to be incompatible. Desire takes you away from what you currently have. And what you have now (assuming you are not being abused) is often worthy of your attention and delight - and can become a growing source of bliss - if only you would look at it lovingly. In this season of Thanksgiving my hope for readers of this column is that you explore the barriers to gratitude you experience in your lives and find it within your hearts to appreciate and attend to the riches you already possess.
Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.
Dombeck, M.J. (Nov 1999). Gratitude the Antidote to Desire. [Online].