I read a quote recently where the actor Charlie Sheen said “the only thing I’m addicted to at the moment is winning.” One assumes he was joking, but in some ways, that might be an accurate description of the experience of many of us who continually strive for success in the different areas of our lives.
The idea of “goals”, it is often overlooked, has emerged into a culture as a part of a larger metaphor of “life as sport”. In the sport of life (or business, or whatever arena we are playing in), the more goals we “score” (reach), the better we seem to be doing.
People often think of this as a motivating metaphor, especially if they’re driven by a desire to win or by the fear of losing. Yet in my experience, thinking about life in terms of success and failure promotes stress, excess competitiveness, and a world where life is “all about me”.
Here’s how I wrote about the biology of chasing success in Feel Happy Now!:
Dopamine is the ‘motivation chemical’. The release of dopamine into the bloodstream increases our ability to focus and motivates us to take action. Dopamine levels naturally rise as we move towards a goal and begin to anticipate a result. They tend to be at their highest when we are in active pursuit of getting what we want.
Serotonin is the ‘feel-good chemical’ and is as calming and soothing as dopamine is energizing. When dopamine produces effort, serotonin provides the reward. We receive an increase in serotonin whenever we:
- Win anything, from a game of tic-tac-toe to the lottery.
- Get public recognition for a job well done.
- Take certain drugs or drink alcohol.
- Feel part of a crowd, group or team (for example at a football match or a book club).
Together, the interplay of dopamine and serotonin make the world go round. Higher levels of dopamine move us forward;higher levels of serotonin provide feelings of safety,satisfaction and curiosity.
When looked at through this chemical filter, we can understand the innate appeal of goal-driven behaviour, whether it’s trying to do a Sudoku puzzle or change the world. We not only get the energized, focused sensations that come from the build-up of dopamine in trying to solve the puzzle or reach the goal; we also get the calm, contented feelings of satisfaction and well-being that follow the release of serotonin at the moment of triumph and success.
In other words, we literally get high on our brain chemicals when we chase our goals, providing we achieve enough of them to get the dopamine surges and serotonin releases we crave.
Psychologically, our desperate need to succeed can be understood through the idea of the ego or “self-image”. Our problems do not arise because we want things – they come about because we link our self-image to our attempts to get them. After all, “score” enough goals and I’m a winner; no goals at all and I’m a loser. And most people will do anything to not have to think of themselves as losers, even if they have to create misery in their lives and the lives of those around them in order to win.
So what’s the solution? How do we overcome the addiction to more that has crashed the world’s financial markets and sets brother against brother in every corner of the globe?
Do we need to abandon goals altogether? Or harder still, should we continue to set them higher and higher but somehow not attach to them, like Buddhists walking on a tight-rope tied between the worlds of the formless and the form?
Here are three things I’ve discovered so far that really seem to help us curb our addiction without turning our backs on the world:
1. Our ability to separate out our projects from our pipe dreams and to enjoy both in equal measure.
On a purely practical level, I have come to see that there are only two kinds of goals worth thinking about:
- “Pipe dreams” are those things we think we would like to have but we’re not ready, willing, or able to make our lives about their achievement.
- “Projects”, on the other hand, are those things we are actively engaged in the process of creating.
While “pipe dreams” have a bad reputation, perhaps stemming back to the origin of the phrase in the opium dens of the late 19th century, I actually find them quite entertaining – a sort of “preview of attractions” which may or may not be coming soon into my life. Surprisingly often, yesterday’s pipe dreams become today’s projects, almost as though they needed extra time to take shape in the forge of my imagination before I was ready to act on them.
If I know that for me, losing weight or saving money or changing my job is just a pipe dream, I can enjoy the thought of it without attempting to shame myself into action.
On the other hand, if I keep calling something a goal or a project and doing nothing to make it happen, I get the worst of both worlds – all the bad feelings which come with thoughts of apparent failure with none of the rewards that come from engaging fully with the task at hand.
2. A deeper understanding of the source of our well-being
A friend of mine recently described the seeming reality of our thoughts as being like living with a sleight of hand magician – even though we know it’s just a trick, we fall for it again and again and again
I know for myself that although I have been teaching and writing about the inside-out nature of reality for many years now, I continue to be fooled on a daily basis by the illusory nature of my own thoughts. I think I’m feeling upset because of something that is going on in my life and set about changing the world to make myself feel better. Yet sooner or later, I once again discover that it was my own unrecognized thinking that was upsetting me.
In fact, I’ve come to see that one of the most reliable ways to know I’ve fallen back into the hypnotic trance of a world that says it can make us happy if and when we’ve danced to it’s tune is that I have a “very good reason” for my unrest. The more it looks like the source of my well-being or my misery is outside me, the deeper the trance I am in.
Fortunately, it doesn’t matter how deeply under you go – waking up is still never more than one thought away, and that new thought (really a momentarily absence of thought, like a ‘glitch in the Matrix’ from the movies) can happen in any moment. And the moment it does, I’m right back in the sea of well-being that is as natural to us from the moment we are born as breathing out and breathing in.
3. A clearer sense of our role in the universe
I once had a dream where I was put in charge of a large university. At first it was quite exciting to have that kind of power, but after a few months of trying to balance the incredibly complex needs of thousands of students and hundreds of teachers, not to mention the parents and boosters each actively pushing their own agenda without any awareness or sensitivity to the flow of the system as a whole, it was quite a relief to wake up.
I feel much the same about life. Occasionally, after a good week of goal getting and all the dopamine and serotonin my little brain could ever want, I get delusions of grandeur and think that if I really applied myself, I could sort out the politics of the Middle East, cure cancer, and still be home in time to cook a gourmet meal for my beautiful wife.
And then I stop for a moment and reflect on how miraculous it is that I’m even alive – how many things had to go right for a man to find a woman and a sperm to find an egg, let alone for me and the people I love to navigate the daily dangers of our world for the past 40 plus years.
And it occurs to me how wonderful it is to not be in charge of the universe, and how grateful I am that there is some energy and intelligence behind life that makes my presence on this planet possible.
At times like these, I’m not addicted to success or winning or anything else. Just the privilege of being alive in this moment is enough. And while I’d certainly like even more of those moments, I know that chasing them will only chase them further and further away.
So I live my life, as best I know to do. I have fun, and try to be kind, and make a positive difference. Most days, I think I do a pretty good job. Some days I don’t. But all in all, it works, and I’m happy and grateful that I got the chance to do it again today.
I have found great comfort in these words of Marianne Williamson – she talks about God, but what she has to say is no less true if you substitute the word “universe” or “life” or even “love”:
“When we surrender to God, we surrender to something bigger than ourselves – to a universe that knows what it’s doing. When we stop trying to control events they fall into a natural order, an order that works. We’re at rest while a power much greater than our own takes over, and it does a much better job than we could have done. We learn to trust that the power that holds galaxies together can handle the circumstances of our relatively little lives.”