Elusive Pleasures and Contentment

We spend a lifetime pursuing things that we think will give us pleasure and contentment. Great minds like Aristotle and many others have devoted time thinking about pleasures that would bring happiness and contentment. The puritans were fearful of pursuing such feel good pleasures in case they led them into temptation. Some claim that Buddha was also not too keen on feel good pleasures; he taught real happiness comes from completely eliminating these desires.

We have come a long way to understanding what these pleasures are. Let us take a step back and try to understand what’s going on when we find pleasure in something. When we seek out certain types of food or sexual experiences, new job, new car etc; and when we actually acquire it, our brain then gives us a boost of certain chemicals such as dopamine, which gives us a feeling of good ripples through our consciousness, making us feel happy. This acts as an incentive or the reward for pursuing our object of desire. The more we acquire, more rewarded we feel and more we want. This is the force or the urges and feelings of the incentive / resource seeking system.

Think about the last time you did something that you really enjoyed, perhaps enjoying an evening with friends, having a good holiday or sexual experience. It may have felt good, but it probably didn’t last that long because those kinds of pleasures usually don’t. Pleasure ALWAYS come to an end. Sometimes the feeling of the fulfilled desire is so fleeting that we are on the lookout for the next one in no time at all.

All this does not mean that we renounce our pleasures, but we can engage in seeking pleasure in more skillful way. If we base our happiness only on operating from our incentive system and fulfilling our desires, life will be a roller coaster ride of short-lasting pleasures, striving, seeking, frustration, wanting more and better, with increasing effort s to control our lives and those of others to give us the next fix of pleasure.  These kinds of pleasures are dependent on the world and other people giving us something in some way. In this way we are always distracted or running away from the unpleasant thoughts or experiences of life; we try to lose ourselves and forget the unpleasantness of life by indulging in pleasure. These short-lived pleasures leave us wanting more and we live in constant pursuit of them, hoping we will be content one day but we never seem to reach that state. Moreover, the pleasure prevents us from reflection, exploration, gaining insight into and experiences of the very nature of our mind.

Insight into our mind will allow us to experience other positive feelings that are based on contentment, non striving, being mindful and living –in – the moment.

We will explore these in more detail in the next article.


The Compassionate Mind  by Paul Gilbert


Self Protection and Others


I have talked about how the threat/self – protection system evolved through evolution. We now need to look at the difficulty our brain faces when it has to decide what is and what is not a threat in the present day. We no longer are faced with lions running around our neighborhood and have to decide whether to stay or run. We are faced, instead with more subtle situations and our brain has to learn what is and what is not threatening; but moreover our brain has to modify the basic patterns given to us by our evolution to react appropriately in a given situation.

Research has shown that there are number of different memory systems for processing what is a threatening event. There is part of the brain called amygdala, which receives information quickly. It then makes a quick and crude judgement about whether the situation is life threatening based on previous experience. The problem is these sorts of memories are about high threat, and as the threat system is activated, integrating new information becomes difficult because this system is designed to turn off the reflective thought, jump to conclusions and simply act fast.  So we don’t even get the opportunity to consider other options of reaction to a situation. It also activates the hormone cortisol, which can interfere with the processing of the hippocampus part of the brain which may store memories of similar situations like the one being faced, which are not life threatening. It also may interfere with part of the brain called frontal cortex where we figure out what is appropriate behavior in a given social situation.

In our environment today many of the threat that activate, stimulate and shapes our threat/ self – protection system comes from other people. It is also our relationships with other people who teach us about our feelings; we can only make sense, understand and give meaning to our feeling of anger or comfort in relationship to others. We have many memories of the past, some good and some bad in relation to others. Some will evoke anger, others anxiety or sadness.  These past emotional memories are focused on self-protection and they can easily intrude our lives in the present. Sometimes this intrusion can be disturbing and causes us to get stuck, become fearful, anxious and depressed.  The more we try to push these feelings aside the stronger they becomes, causing more intrusions in our thoughts that results in us having irritated mental state.

We must be able to experience and understand emotions and allow other people to help us to accept and comprehend them. We cannot do that if we do not express them to some degree and learn from that experience. Emotions can be difficult and tricky things. In trying to protect ourselves from expressing emotion that could get us into trouble, we may actually end up not being able to develop sufficient understanding of our emotions to be able to work with them; we may become emotionally handicapped individuals. I have seen people with terrible emotional difficulties where psychotherapy has been helpful in figuring out how the past was intruding into the present; they were able to let go and move forward to new opportunities.

So we have to learn how to work with strong emotions compassionately, recognizing that we didn’t design them, choose them or ask for them to be shaped in the way they are, but also not to be simply passive in face of them or blindly act them out.

Next time I will look at feeling good feelings; until than be compassionate to your self-protective brain!!!


The Compassionate Mind  by Paul Gilbert


Hope Is Not Always A Good Thing

I always encouraged hopefulness but sometimes it seems being hopeful can be a bad thing.

Suppose someone is in an abusive relationship in which one partner beats the other on a regular basis and the partner who keeps getting beat up continue to hope that his or her partner will change because deep down they are a nice person. I have witnessed this kind of situation continuing for years but nothing changed.


So how does one decide when enough is enough and walk away ? That’s not always easy, everyone is in a different situation and has different tolerance level for the abuse. I myself like to think I will tolerate zero abuse, but I too have tolerated abuse from those I love.

Generally speaking if there are enough signals of you as a person being slowly and perniciously harmed it is time to abandon hope and chart a different course for your life that’s away from the abusive person. Time has come to be compassionate towards yourself.

Quick Strategies of the Past no Longer Work in Modern Times.

I remember being sixteen and my first girlfriend. Whenever I could not contact her I would be full of fear that she had left me for some other boy who is smarter, charming and better looking. I would slip into a state of sadness until she reassured me that I was the one who was smarter, charming and good-looking; that she was head over heal crazy about me.

I would feel silly for thinking the worst possible reasons for my inability to reach her. I would be very hard on myself for thinking such thought. It is only now I can be compassionate towards myself because I know that I had little control over those thought and emotions. Here’s why.

Our brains over millions of years have been designed to over-estimate the dangers, this had a survival value. If you were in a lion country and you heard a noise you are more likely to think there is a lion and run away. If you stayed around to make sure it was a lion you may not survive to tell it was a lion.  Our brains were not designed to be accurate when there is a threatening situation; to survive you had to make assumptions rapidly, not caring very much if it’s wrong. It is far better to run thinking it’s a lion even if you are wrong nine times out of ten. This ‘jumping to conclusions’ and assuming the worst has actually saved many of our ancestors’ lives.


The point is that our threat / self – protection system has been designed along fairly simple lines to detect threats and protect us. These systems still gets triggered but we are not able to respond like our ancestors did by running away.  With our ‘ new minds’, our capacity for thinking, reflecting and rumination our desires for self-preservation and to impress and influence others, does not allow us to respond in a simplistic manner. We may even end up hating the feeling that the situation generates inside us-which usually makes things worse. So again we need to train our brains carefully and compassionately to offset this tendency. It is not our fault that our primitive impulse tries to find a quick solution to a complex situation.

In the future post we will look into how we may guide ourselves by understanding  these primitive impulses.


The Compassionate Mind  by Paul Gilbert



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