Some people work incredibly hard to achieve something, and when they finally do, they spend the rest of their lives worrying about losing that thing. Only at a very late age do they realize that having that thing didn’t really make them happy anyway. They just thought they wanted it because everyone else seemed to want it.
They reach the conclusion that collecting things and chasing goals is far from a bullet proof way to happiness.
In the meantime, the vast majority of us continue to fail to learn any lessons from the elderly or from those who diverge from the common path. Instead we keep yearning and wishing for that next thing, the change that will finally make us happy. If only we could have this instead of that, be there instead of here, be with that person instead of this person and look like a a celebrity, we’d be all set and never ask for anything again.
We never reach the conclusion and tragically repeat the same mistake our entire lives, always chasing something, someone, or someplace different that holds the promise of eternal fulfilment. We replace the previous goal with a new one, thinking this is a new strategy, and that this time we will finally be satisfied.
Why do we always imagine the grass is greener on the other side?
When making judgements about reality we often fail to look at the bigger picture. In psychology, “heuristics” is the term used when people make conclusions about a complex matter by focusing only on very few of its aspects, or when applying very simple rules of judgement.
In other words, heuristics are mental shortcuts that you use to make fast decisions. They evolved to help you decide whether a person is friendly based on a glimpse of their face, or whether you’re able to beat a flamingo based on its size (you probably could, but don’t take your anger out on a poor flamingo).
We use such mental shortcuts a lot of the time. But considering the basic purposes for which they evolved and the complexity of the world in which we live today, our heuristics are now inaccurate and bound to lead us to false conclusions.
Consider, for instance, the so-called “availability heuristic”. The more “available” a scenario is, meaning the more easily and vividly the scenario can be brought to mind, the more likely is it that you will consider the scenario to be realistic, even when it is not.
Here’s an example. Generally, people who upload pictures of their bodies to social media are in great shape. The stars in movies and shows are also typically fit, and advertisers never fail to use physically attractive people in commercials. Since you are exposed to so many images of attractive bodies, the availability heuristic would make you believe that most people are fitter than you, even if that isn’t true. People post those pictures precisely because their bodies aren’t average.
In social situations, including social media, people generally try to show their best qualities. We put on nicer clothes along with a smile, demonstrate our impressive knowledge on a subject, speak with more passion, and resist the urge to pick our nose until we reach the bathroom stall.
Social creatures as we are, we are interested in other people, and we measure ourselves by comparison to them. Social media exacerbates this problem, since it is typically used for biased self-exhibition and allows people even greater to control over how their lives are viewed. What’s worse, the spectacle of other people’s glamour is no longer reserved to fancy restaurants or parties: It follows you everywhere, through your phone and computer. (Read here why I recommend distancing yourself from news and social media.)
Combined with heuristics, this all becomes very problematic. By focusing only on what you can see in front of you, you get the impression that some people are always happy and always look good. You make snap judgements about other people’s seemingly exciting lives and conclude that your own is mediocre.
Commercials only add to this feeling of inadequacy. They insinuate that happiness is primarily found in possessions and celebrity, and that until you own a particular product or look a certain way, you won’t be good enough.
You must learn to question your immediate impression and examine the bigger picture. Did you consider the possibility that some people exhibit themselves on social media not because they are happy, but because they are insecure and desperately in need of external validation? Or that their lives may be rather shallow if all they care about is being at the right party? Or that in order to afford those clothes, they had to work extra hours and sacrifice quality of life?
Keep that in mind when you browse social media and meet other people. It isn’t reality. It’s just a planned, heavily manipulated, one-sided part of reality. These words from a childhood friend come to mind: “The grass is always greener on the other side because the other side is fertilized with bullshit.”
Fulfillment Was Never A Priority
As it turns out, constantly feeling unsatisfied may actually have been advantageous to us during our evolutionary past.
From a biological standpoint, the purpose of your existence is to continue your genetic lineage. The healthier and more attractive your offspring is, the better their chances will be. For that purpose, the most important thing you can do is to cultivate health and attractiveness in yourself, and to find a mate who also possesses these traits, so that your offspring can inherit them. For this biological purpose, having a feeling of lasting happiness and fulfillment does not give any benefits.
Imagine a man who isn’t very handsome, yet totally indifferent about his looks. If he has no incentive to work on himself, he most likely won’t be able to woo an attractive and healthy woman. Or imagine that he doesn’t care who he mates with. Or imagine that he’s so happy with life that he doesn’t even care to seek a sexual partner. Either scenario is morally fine, but evolutionarily speaking, his lineage would not fare well. So the genes that gave him his satisfaction would not be passed on for many generations and become very rare.
Conversely, imagine him with near-constant dissatisfaction. A feeling of inadequacy will give him the incentive to always work on himself (which enables him to attract a better mate). Focusing on flaws in his partner and quickly getting bored with her will make him look for a more attractive one (which would give his offspring a genetic advantage). Constantly feeling an urge for sex will make him mate more (which would give him more offspring). Evolutionary selection would favor people like him, who wanted the perfect mate and always sought to improve themselves or their circumstances.
This hypothesis is simple, but it provides a reasonable explanation for our almost constant feeling of unfulfillment. The fleeting sense of pleasure that awaits us upon having our desires met is part of the equation. It must be there to make us work towards the goal, but it must also disappear shortly after to keep us wanting what we haven’t got — an even hotter mate who could potentially give us a genetically stronger child, and expensive clothes to attract that partner.
Even when you’ve realised that lasting happiness doesn’t come from objects, there is no guaranteed release from the illusion that the grass is greener on the other side. “My personal growth can only continue in a different city with more enlightened people.” “Maybe reading this next book will finally give me the insight I need to become more at peace.”
We can’t blame anyone for trying to solve their issues by looking outside of themselves. By ascribing your misery to that thing you don’t have but should have (or vice versa), there’s no need to look inside and understand what’s really causing the misery; no need to face it and solve it. I’ll be the first to admit that it seems like a very appealing solution.
We tend to shy away from accepting responsibility, especially for our own situation, because it forces us to give up the story we have been telling ourselves for so long — that we’re the victim, that we’re unfortunate, and that we deserve better. It simply isn’t comfortable to realise that the reason for our dissatisfaction might be ourselves. Whether it’s due to our own procrastination, dishonesty, jealousy, or whatever else, it can be difficult to admit to yourself that you could be a better person and that there is nobody else to blame.
Step Out of the Treadmill
I remember a day when I attended a university lecture in the morning, went for a run in the afternoon, had delicious dinner, went to the movies with a great girl, and slept with her afterwards. It seemed that all my desires had been met that day—intellectual stimulus, physical activity, savory food, entertainment, sex and affection. Yet as I lay there in bed with her and tried to fall asleep, I still felt that something was missing.
The green grass illusion is an endless cycle of disappointment. This may sound harsher than it is meant. I don’t mean to trivialize the joy that can be found in relationships, things, entertainment and achievements. It can be immense, and getting what you’ve wished for may satisfy you for a few minutes, a couple of days, months, or even years, but will inevitably feel insufficient.
“How often is it the case, that, when impossibilities have come to pass, and dreams have condensed their misty substance into tangible realities, we find ourselves calm… amid circumstances which it would have been a delirium of joy to anticipate!”
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rappaccini’s Daughter (1846).
Typically, when we find something we like, we make it part of our identity; we try to make it our own and ensure that it will always be there. The challenge lies in appreciating the world without getting caught up in it. We must learn to enjoy things without demanding their eternal recurrence.
It seems we are destined to pursue worldly pleasures until we learn that they cannot last, be caught, or controlled; a realisation that forces us to look the only place we’ve so far neglected: within. Although I cannot remember where and exactly how he worded it, Russell Brand, a former addict himself, said that all addictions are attempts to fill an inner void; they are all substitutes for self-love. I agree with that.
Without illusion, there would be no enlightenment, as Buddha said. So the green grass illusion isn’t all bad. It is a series of false leads we must pursue before we can see what truly matters.
1. A possible reason why is that, during most of our evolutionary history, heuristics didn’t demand too much of the brain, yet were still accurate enough for most everyday purposes. http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/0033-2909.134.2.207