One of the reasons why newness is so exhilarating, exciting, and enticing is that the pleasure centers in our brains get a positive jolt when we experience novelty.
However, once we become habituated or acclimated to a new thing and its novelty wears off, we again need something new to give the same good feeling we originally felt.
In this way, we get stuck on what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill of wanting more pleasure.
If we’re wired this way, is there any antidote to always wanting more?
Are we doomed to remain on the treadmill?
In Buddhism, there is a wonderful metaphor that depicts this insatiable craving for more.
It is called the hungry ghost, which is often illustrated as having a tiny mouth, a long skinny neck, and a huge belly.
In other words, the hungry ghost has a gigantic appetite that can never be satiated. It can never fill up that huge belly of desire because it has such a tiny mouth and neck.
Living as a hungry ghost goes beyond material hunger; this is the emotional hunger and fear that drive envy, jealousy, greed, and all forms of possessiveness.
Read the news, and you can see that even people with countless millions often need more — even if it means harming others. Without question, experiencing life as a hungry ghost produces a lot of suffering in the world.
Surprisingly, you need not look far to find the healing remedy for the hedonic treadmill and the hungry ghost. It’s right here, right by your side, and it comes from appreciating this seemingly very ordinary moment.
What if we could counter the desire for more by getting more satisfaction out of what we already have in our lives?
Mother Teresa eloquently spoke of this in her poem “True Drops of Love”:
Do not think that love, in order to be genuine,
has to be extraordinary.
What we need is to love without getting tired.
How does a lamp burn?
Through the continuous input of small drops of oil.
If the drops of oil run out, the light of the lamp will cease,
and the bridegroom will say, "I do not know you."
My daughters, what are these drops of oil in our lamps?
They are the small things of daily life:
small words of kindness,
a thought for others,
our way of being silent,
of looking, of speaking,
and of acting.
These are the true drops of love.
Be faithful in small things because it is in them
that your strength lies.
Mother Teresa knew the deep truth of which she spoke.
A study published in Psychological Science titled “A ‘Present’ for the Future: The Unexpected Value of Rediscovery” investigated the importance of ordinary experiences.
Basically, researchers wanted to know what people would find more fascinating to review at some point in the future: an ordinary experience or an extraordinary one?
At the beginning of the study, participants predicted that the ordinary would not be very interesting for them to review in the future. Then, individuals actually chronicled both an ordinary day and an extraordinary day through taking photos and writing about the day.
The extraordinary day was Valentine’s Day, and the subjects (all of whom had romantic relationships) wrote down their experiences of this special event.
Three months later, subjects rediscovered their earlier experiences — the ordinary and extraordinary — to determine which they were more curious about and which was more satisfying.
So which was more meaningful and curiosity provoking?
Subjects found that the ordinary day’s events were more meaningful and of interest than that special Valentine’s Day. They had greatly underestimated that ordinary day and what they could gain from it. This study reveals the surprising power of the ordinary.
The ordinary contains the seeds of meaning and daily appreciation that dissolve the need for accumulation.
Appreciation of the ordinary is a different way of being in the world than feeling acquisitiveness or envy. You’re not likely to be envious of what another person has if you are deeply appreciative of what you already have in your life. By witnessing the incredible wealth and richness of ordinary and good things all around, you conquer feelings of scarcity, comparison with others, and appetite for more.
A wonderful example of how to savor the ordinary came from a friend of mine who commented on how fast her children were growing up.
It made her sad, she said, to think that she might forget any of it. She responded by engaging the ordinary in a way that was at once simple, beautiful, and profound.
“Early this morning,” she told me,
“I sat in the shadows in a room just off the kitchen and watched my sixteen-year-old go into the kitchen to make his breakfast. He didn’t know I was watching, but I just sat there as he broke an egg on the frying pan. He shook the shell. He adjusted his earbuds and then broke another egg. Just watching him moment to moment was my meditation. It was ordinary and very special.”
Even the ancient Greek Stoic philosophers recognized that contentment came from appreciating the ordinary.
Essentially, they would ask themselves the question, What would life be like if I didn’t have those simple things that make my life tolerable and good? By imagining the loss of the ordinary, they came to appreciate it even more. No wonder that the ordinary is your secret weapon against the daily glut and clutter of affluenza.
Lifestyle Tool: Appreciating and Savoring the Ordinary
For this practice, you will pay attention to the “small things,” as Mother Teresa referred to them. When this becomes a daily practice, you will be surprised by how much you have that brings joy.
Find a quiet place where you can sit and reflect for at least five minutes without being interrupted.
Read through the four categories below for appreciating the ordinary.
Contemplate on these, or write down your thoughts. If you find that one or two of these methods resonate with you, bring them into your life each day as an antidote to daily clutter.
1. Savor Small Things That Bring Joy
Think about the small things that you cherish or just appreciate — they could even be daily rituals that bring order to your day.
Here are a few examples:
- A cup of hot coffee in the morning
- Reading the paper
- Giving a hug or kiss to someone special
- Greeting a coworker with a smile
- Watching your child crack an egg
- Feeling your feet touch the floor in the morning
- Noticing the water while in the shower
- Appreciating the color of the walls in your home or office
- The flavor of the first bite of food in the morning
- A comfortable chair to sit in
- The transportation that helps you get around
2. Observe Ordinary Things Right Next to You
Look around the environment that surrounds you. What ordinary things could you appreciate or savor that are nearby?
Throughout your day, get in the habit of taking a mental picture of the ordinary thing you are doing at that moment — from sitting down in your office to driving the kids to school. Let yourself steep in the beauty of the ordinary. Remind yourself that this moment is special and will never be repeated in the same way again.
3. Soak in a Past Success
In the same way that you can appreciate an ordinary moment that is occurring right now, you can also look back to appreciate a past moment where you felt proud and happy.
Right now, think of an accomplishment that made you proud — whether graduating from school, helping another succeed, getting a promotion, committing to self-care, or recovering from an illness or difficult time in your life. Spend a good five minutes letting yourself feel good about this event.
4. Remember a Past Kindness
Was there a time when you helped someone? Or when someone helped you? Of course, there was!
Right now, bring to mind that moment or event when you shared a word of encouragement with another, or vice versa. Remember, even the smallest and most ordinary act of kindness — a smile, a pat on the back, a word of encouragement — is a powerful expression of caring that can have long-lasting effects.
How can you bring ordinary kindness into the world today?
Make a commitment to kindness, and write down your kindness or share it with others so that you don’t forget.
Copyright © 2016 by Donald Altman. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.newworldlibrary.com.
About the author
Donald Altman, M.A. LPC, is a psychotherapist, award-winning writer, former Buddhist monk, and teacher. He served as adjunct professor at Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling, and is an adjunct faculty member of the Interpersonal Neurobiology program at Portland State University.
Donald Altman is the author of Clearing Emotional Clutter: Mindfulness Practices for Letting Go of What’s Blocking Your Fulfillment and Transformation and several other books about mindfulness. He is a practicing psychotherapist and former Buddhist monk. An award-winning writer and an expert on mindful eating, he teaches the neurobiology program at Portland State University. Visit him online at www.mindfulpractices.com.