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You Can’t Get No Satisfaction

07/16/2009

Beautiful Readers,

Feeling unsatisfied, restless, or discontent with your life as it is?

If so, congrats, because you’re totally normal–if you’re a human being. If you’re a skunk or chimp, however, then you’re in a lot of trouble.

One of my favorite books Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers written by Robert Sapolsky, professor of Biological Sciences, and Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences, and Neurosurgery, at Stanford University, explains the tragic connection between our incredible human advantage–the ability to imagine a future different than our present, and our incredible human disadvantage–a preponderance of stress.

According to this book, the main reason that we are feeding our pets, and that they are not feeding us (or eating us, for that matter) is because we can think creatively, and other species don’t. Like, not at all. 

This is where friends of mine have said things like “but, my cat’s very creative–she flushes the toilet before she drinks out of it.” or ”but my dog always gets the green leash out when they want to go to the park and the red one when they want to go to the store.” I gotcha’. And while those dogs and cats are very clever and may have particularly great memories and abilities to use the information they remember to achieve a certain result–they still aren’t creative. Creative would be bringing you your bathrobe-tie instead of a leash when Fido wants to go for a walk, because it looks like it might be more comfortable around the neck than the nylon pull chain you currently use. 

Creativity is great and all and it breeds all kinds of ambition. It is the thing that allows us to get out of sticky situations where other animals would languish. Your parakeet has a hard time getting free of it’s cage when you stick your hand in to feed it, much less being able to escape from Alcatraz with lifelike dummies, fake grates, and a fork. Dogs only wish they could plan out a TV career for themselves because they want to buy a bigger dog house when they’ve outgrown their current abode.

The enviable thing about animals, though, is that they rarely feel like they’ve outgrown anything. What was at first a perfectly serviceable chew toy is forever a perfectly serviceable chew toy. Our innate yearning to construct our own improved future allows us to do all kinds of cool things like build bridges, paint paintings, move to the suburbs, and go into business or space, but it has a dark side. Creative drive also allows us to imagine bad things that might be–abject failure, making our lot worse by our own actions, loss of people and things we care about, and the most insidious possibility, a generalized feeling that we should always be doing and having more than we’ve got now–which, unbridled, can lead to a nearly permanent feeling of inadequacy, and malcontent. Enter chronic stress. The bad kind.

Now, I’d love to say that my company offers a special service that can fix this whole ambition/stress conundrum. Trouble is, creativity, ambition, and it’s associated stress is like that old joke “Doctor, my brother thinks he’s a chicken!”, “Then, why don’t you take him to a psychiatrist?”, “Because we need the eggs.” And we do need the ambition eggs. People who have been lobotomized report being very content, trouble is, they don’t accomplish much.

So what can we do? We can learn to control it. Make our ambitious nature work for us instead of the other way round. We can enjoy the fruits of our desire to build and change without so many of the pitfalls if we learn to compartmentalize our ambition. 

Some of the happiest (and most successful) people I know are master’s (and mistresses) at turning their focus completely away from the thing that they are so busy working on when they need to. Meditation, Tai Chi, and Yoga are great for practicing the art of momentarily turning away from things which cause inconvenient amounts of stress, in fact they were invented for this purpose. Conventional exercise works to take you away from your stressors too, and most exercisers I know find that once their fitness routine is challenging enough, and requires total focus to get through it, that that mere moment of forced distraction, helps them to remember that whatever they were so anxious/excited about before, can be put aside temporarily, without negative results.

The other thing that can really help manage our naughtily ambitious natures is the ability to detach emotionally from aspects of life that are causing us pain or distress. The notion of detachment is complicated, in part because the word detached has been given a bad rap–suggesting that a person might  be a disaffected and cool observer of their own life–not engaged–obviously, that’s not what we want. In fact, positive detachment can sometimes allow you to be more present in a given situation, because that emotional step back, when appropriate, can allow for braver and more honest facing of the facts which might otherwise be clouded by panic.

Controlled detachment, like compartmentalization, can also be practiced through yoga and meditation. It offers you the ability to disconnect emotionally from things that don’t benefit from emotions and the involvement of one’s own ego. Allowing your emotions to return, with less bite than before, at the pace that accomplishes your goals best.

Love for one’s friends, children, and spouse, however don’t require detachment–though it can be useful as a solution if problems arise. Again, the beauty of detachment, like with compartmentalization is that, unlike that surge of adrenaline and cortisol, you can control them.Choose when you want them and when you don’t. And if you are skilled with them, you can activate them when you need a break from the potentially destructive aspects of our creative and ambitious nature, leaving only the best of what makes us human.

Here’s an interview with Robert Sapolsky about getting perspective on stress in the corporate world. Don’t miss it!

All the best,

Alix Florio    Beautiful Fitness www.beautifulfitness.com