“No, no, no, josh, no, not the wall…”
Too late. The canvas was already wet with my masterpiece.
“What’s this?” I thought, “Why am I not getting my usual reaction of good boy?”
This was my biggest drawing yet. I even took care to spread it over both corners of the kitchen wall, a feat that doesn’t come easy for a three-year-old boy.
I had learnt to draw. Suddenly, everything looked like a blank canvas. It’s the feeling you get when you learn a new skill; all you see are opportunities to try it out. For me, that was a freshly painted wall.
Your own canvas in life will look very different. I have a friend whose canvas is painted by strokes of economics. When he looks at the world, he sees figures and incentives. Another friend paints their wall with the scientific method. She looks at the world and asks, what do we know? How do we know this? A third friend – and a fellow artist, or I suppose, a real artist – has a knack for finding magic in the mundane. As Andy Warhol would say, “there is beauty in everything, just not everybody sees it.”
When I look, I see three unique stories. Three very different people. But they all have something in common. They all have a tool which is their unique way of viewing the world. Their tools aren’t the same. One has a hammer, another a screwdriver, and the third a saw. Yet every tool is as important as the other. The problem is that all they see are nails, screws and wood, depending on the tool they’re using. They solve every problem with the same tool, the one they’re comfortable with. As the saying goes, everything looks like a nail when you have a hammer.
The wrong tool for the job
If an alien happened upon our earth and stumbled into a library, they’d have us worked out pretty quickly. And if they were here to enslave the human race, the ship would turn around. There’s no need. We’re already doing a good job of shackling ourselves. Take the bookshop. What does ET see? How to be happy. How to be successful. How to be rich. If they keep looking, they’ll even find titles such as How to be F#!king happy, F#!king successful or F#!king rich. Nope. We’re doing a better job at enslaving ourselves up than the aliens ever could.
You’ll notice a common theme: that our problems can be solved by obtaining something. Each of us is unique with our own set of tools, but when it comes to life’s problems, we all turn to the same tool to solve them. When life is hard, we pull out our hammers to fix the problem with another nail.
That nail might be a new boat, relationship, or house. Maybe it’s a new community, belief or job. The nails all look a little different, but we use the same tool – our hammer. Whenever we feel down, dissatisfied or lost, we reach for something more.
What if there was another way? What if this problem didn’t need another nail? If, instead of reaching for more, we looked at what we already have.
The happiness treadmill
Life can be hard. Naturally, I reached for distractions. Food, work, projects, anything. Yet, no matter the distraction, I always found myself reaching for more. In time, it dawned on me that I was using the wrong tool for the job.
I thought the feeling of not having enough, achieving enough or being enough was a hammer and nail problem. I just needed to get more, do more, be more; then I’ll feel better. But this isn’t how we work. As Homo Sapiens, we’re wired to keep wanting more. From an evolutionary standpoint, this is a good thing. Happy hunter-gatherers settle down and stagnate. Evolution needed us to keep moving, exploring and colonizing the globe. This is why we find ourselves in green pastures with an abundance of food and yet still have a burning urge to see what’s over the hill. Who knows, maybe the food’s better?
There’s a concept called hedonic adaptation. It’s the same reason you can win the lotto or find yourself in a wheelchair, and two years later, your happiness will be about what it was before either event. Your brain adapts to its circumstances. Unfortunately, our baseline is always on the side of wanting. When you earn more money, you spend more. You acclimatize to the new way of life, and those extra perks no longer bring any more happiness. This process of wanting is aptly named the hedonic treadmill. The more you have, the more you want. Your standards will always adjust to your means.
The power of gratitude
Most of us don’t know about this treadmill. I didn’t. Naturally, the faster I ran, the faster I wanted to go. I turned to the only tool I knew – more.
One day, I came across a quote.
Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.Epictetus
My entire life, I have always wanted more. More time, more opportunities, more success, and that’s why I have never had enough. Our cups will always be half empty. It’s how our brain sees it. We can either protest that it isn’t filled up to the top or be grateful we have something to drink.
We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.Albert Einstein