Defying Our Instincts in Order to Find Contentment

As a species, we evolved for survival, not contentment. The four Fs decided everything we did: Fight, Flee, Feed, or, uh, you know, Fornicate. (A student of mine though “freak” would be better, but we all know what the F stands for). Those of us who had these four instincts most strongly ingrained in us, survived. We survived by fighting and feeding and fleeing and freaking as much as possible. The oddball who decided to take it easy, enjoy the sunset, stop and smell the roses, probably didn’t make it very long in the cave man world, and probably did not pass down these traits. So now, if we want to find contentment, we need to go up against our own evolution. But it’s worth it.

We are designed to want more. It’s built in. To counteract this urge, we have to train ourselves, first of all, to enjoy less (which you can do with the Stoic practice of suffering), and, second of all, to appreciate what we have (try out a gratitude practice).

We are designed to constantly be prepared to fight or flee, and this is still our natural response when the boss comes down hard on us or someone cuts us off in traffic or our kid spills his milk on our laptop. The animal brain kicks in, our heart rate jumps up, and our instinctive response is to swing our fists, throw a fit, or run and hide. Usually, we can’t do these things, which means are bodies are always wound up in stress reflexes even over small problems. The solution is to cultivate a bit of detachment and a sense of calm through a daily practice of mindfulness meditation.

Our mental appetite for food is way beyond what our body can handle. With food being so scarce, the cavemen who survived evolved an ability to chow down like a hyena on an elephant, which is how I feel when the pizza man arrives on Friday. But we can’t eat like this for three (or five) meals a day. We have to fight this kind of evolution with a bit of restraint, perhaps a short fast.

The male sex drive evolved to maximize population growth. A healthy young stud can repopulate a small village in one weekend (or at least he could try). This was probably a valuable skill back when tribal wars regularly wiped out a bulk of the guys in town. Marriage and monogamy, for all their conventionality, are nice mechanisms for controlling the evolutionary instincts of some of our more active members.

Why does this all matter? Well, we all want to find contentment. That’s the elusive feeling we seek: peace. But it’s important to realize we evolved to survive, to populate, to chow, to fight, to run, and none of these things are in any way related to contentment. The survival of the fittest favored the obsessive, ambitious, and ravenous. We have to fight our evolution in order to find peace.

I’ve heard from many people remarks like, oh, I just can’t meditate, it’s not for me. I can’t sit still. I hate the quiet. And that’s okay. It is unnatural at first. You’re fighting millions of years of evolution.

If meditation, quiet, restraint, and simplicity feel unnatural, it’s because they are in some ways. That doesn’t mean we should not nurture them. In fact, that’s the very reason why it has to be a daily practice for a sense of quiet and calm to develop. Just as one hike won’t make you healthy, one quiet session won’t cure your anxiety and stress. In fact, starting an exercise regime can feel pretty awful if you’re out of shape, and sitting quietly can be quite painful if you’ve never done it.

It’s hard to do, but it’s worth it. Our society is built on the pillars of our evolution: desire and craving. And there is some trade off. We can be driven and ambitious, but we probably won’t be as content. We can cultivate contentment, but we might not be as successful.

But these are choices we can make, and these are questions we can talk about with our own children. We often program our kids lives so they never have a moment of quiet and calm. This is a mistake. Sure we want them to be ambitious and hard-working, but we need them to be thoughtful and contemplative for this planet to survive.

How do you balance ambition and contentment? What’s the difference between wanting something and craving something? What are the right reasons for striving, stretching, growing? What are the wrong reasons? Is success only measured in terms of power and wealth?

These are things we need to take time to talk about with your kids.


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