It seems to me that one of the problems that we face in the world today is a great, and often growing, sense of discontent.

Many people seem to feel that there are things lacking in their lives. They want more, or different, or "better" things than they actually have. They seem to think that they would be happier, or more fulfilled, or that their lives would be easier or more complete "if only" they had one thing or another. But, somehow, when they get that thing, they don't feel any different at all.

I've been wondering for some time just why that is. It's always been with us, from what I can tell, but it's been becoming more prevalent lately than it once was.

Some people seem to think that it's a lack of "spiritual values" and that might, to some extent, be true. But it seems to me that a whole lot of it is simpler than that.

I think it's a combination of expectations and marketing.

Think about it.

How many times a day are you explicitly told, by ads extolling various products, that you "need" or "deserve" something, because you "are worth it?" How often are you told to "obey" one appetite or another, or urged to "just do" something, complete with compelling images that show beautiful, active, happy people doing or owning or enjoying something that you don't have?

These ads are deliberately instilling a sense of discontent, in order to sell you things. They foster a grasping culture, in which more is never enough, and no matter what you have, you need something else.

We have always had people who hawked their wares. But modern marketing is another thing, and was “invented,” if you will, by a psychologist named Dr. John Broadus Watson in the 1920s. (Not the Dr. Watson from Sherlock Holmes; the Dr. Watson who is "the Father of Behaviorism.") He deliberately used psychology to create a "need" for a product by tapping into the three primitive emotions of fear, love, or rage. There are surviving notes in which he decided to "dispense with rational copy almost entirely." In other words, he decided that it was more profitable to appeal to emotions than to reason.* And, since it appears to be true, that's what ads have been doing ever since.

In addition, if you watch tv, (and most of us do,) you are constantly exposed to a very high standard of living. Most American tv people have larger homes, newer cars, better food, healthier (and more beautiful) families, and nicer clothing than most of us.

Their homes are always spotless, they aren't ever grumpy, they never stutter from sheer nervousness or exhaustion, and the "good guys" never fail in spite of their best efforts.

Even though we know that what we're watching is fiction, we still see it constantly; and at a deep level we tend to compare our lives to those of the tv people, and to feel inferior and deprived of things that "everyone else" obviously has. (Which may be intentional as well; don't forget that most American programming is just a platform for the ads.)

To exacerbate the problem, we often expect certain things out of life, and feel depressed and ill-used when those things don't materialize.

I'm not talking about looking ahead, and seeing the consequences of our actions, or even about visualizing ourselves where we would like to be someday. I believe that both of those are good and valuable ways of being active participants in our own lives.

But when we start to "script," or to write little stories in our heads, with ourselves as the hero, and imagine real people behaving in specific ways, we can get into deep trouble. Why? Because the thing about real people is that every single one of them has free will. So they react in their own ways, not ours.

Let me give you an example of what I'm talking about. Say that Harvey decides to wash the dishes; something he rarely does. It's reasonable to look ahead, and realize that it will take a bit of the load off his wife. It's reasonable to realize that doing dishes will mean that he has less time to read the paper, and decide to do them anyway.

But, when he starts to tell himself how grateful his wife will be, and to visualize her coming into the kitchen and oohing and ahhing, and then telling him that this gives her time for a romantic evening, and putting on that little thing she wears, and lighting candles and opening a bottle of wine, he's gone way overboard.

So, when she sees the dishes, and simply says, "Thanks honey!" and turns to the next task (because, after all, it's only the dishes and nothing spectacular to her,) he's crushed and hurt, and likely to be grumpy and out of sorts, and to feel unappreciated for hours or days.

The hurt is real; but his wife didn't cause it. It's his own expectations that have hurt him.

I see the same thing happening all around me. A man expects an award for his work, and is bitter when his co-workers don't think that what he did was anything special. A kid expects a new outfit to be her ticket to popularity, and comes home in tears when everyone treats her exactly the same way as always. A woman imagines a whole life for her son, and feels betrayed and angry when his real life goes a totally different direction.

Together, these things - the marketing, the fictional lives of the tv people, and our own expectations - can lead to a deep and abiding sense of discontent.

But we don't have to allow these things to get a foothold in our lives.

And, as we stop accepting their influence, we can learn to be content with our real lives, and to value the things that we have.

How?

By taking several very real and concrete steps.

First, study Critical Thinking**, as discussed elsewhere on my site. Since most of marketing is simply emotional manipulation based on logical fallacies, a good grasp of Logic will make you pretty much immune to the effect. There is no need to respond to it once you understand what’s going on.

Secondly, by consciously realizing that tv has nothing to do with reality, and not sitting passively in front of "the tube." Instead, get involved with real life, and with real people. (I don't mean to switch to "reality shows." I mean turn the thing off, and spend the time cultivating actual friendships, instead.)

When you do watch tv, think while you're watching it. Wonder how they did the effects, or think about how you would have written a scene, or what you would have had the character say. Yeah, that means it's not as good an escape; but if you could remake your life into something that you didn't feel the need to escape from, wouldn't that be better? Well, you can!

Thirdly, by leaving your life open-ended. Don't write scripts. Allow people to write their own dialog; they are going to anyway. So, when you do the dishes, don't expect anything from the task except clean dishes. If you get more, it will be a delightful surprise, and if you don't, you won't be disappointed.

Fourthly, realize that although you cannot control much of what happens in your life, you are in complete control of how you react to those things. This is as true for the small stuff as it is for the big; and if you "practice" with the small things, you'll be ready for the big ones when they occur. So, you can fume at all the spam you get, or you can look for the amusing subject lines as you throw it away. (I got one the other day that announced "all I want is.. brushlike exhumation". Not anything I would want, but to each his own! <g>)

If you find that you're reacting badly to something, deliberately switch to a different reaction. (Yes, you can do that. Reactions are "hot-swappable," although it might be a shock to those around you at first.) You aren't stuck with your initial response if you don't like it.

Lastly, learn to separate things that you actually need from things that you want. Plan and work for the things you need; but learn to enjoy the things you have, and you'll find that you want less.

For example, if your old car reliably gets you from Point A to Point B, then you don't need another. So, instead of reading automotive magazines, and looking at all the shiny new cars in the showroom, enjoy the feeling of running a car that's paid for, where the seats and carpet have stopped "out gassing," and you know all the quirks and exactly what the engine should sound like. If you look hard enough, you'll always find something to enjoy about everything that happens to you; even the really bad stuff. As the saying goes, "Every cloud has a silver lining."

It's a very old philosophy, and much denigrated in recent years. (You'll hear people talking about "Pollyanna" in derogatory tones.) But if you look at the people who are mocking it, you'll find that they are either blindly repeating what they have heard, or they are trying to sell you something. As we've seen, if you're contented with what you have, they've lost their market. So their motives are, to put it mildly, suspect.

Being content isn't as hard as the salesmen would have you believe; and it won't cost you any money at all. When you do it, it feels more like "letting go" than anything else. But it does take active participation, awareness, and a willingness to be open. Still, if you've read this far, I'm guessing that you have what it takes. So step out of the grasping culture, and be content!
*By the way, he was earning his living in advertising, and not in psychology, because he was dismissed from his position at Johns Hopkins University for having an affair with one of his graduate students. He later divorced his wife and married the girl (Rosalie Rayner) and they seem to have been devoted to each other until her death. She was, quite possibly, the only person he ever had any affection for; he didn't believe in showing any to children, at any rate. He wrote a book (before Dr. Spock) telling people to limit their physical interaction with their offspring to a "handshake in the morning." Not that the reason is important, I just found it interesting. Back

**Critical Thinking doesn't mean "speaking ill of everything." (That's another piece of manipulation, brought to you by the people who don't want you to think.) It's a study of logic and reasoning. The word "critical" is used in the sense of "vitally important" as in the phrase "A critical task." Back