At a cellular level all organisms are aiming to maintain homeostasis. A state of internal balance and harmony with their surroundings. The body exerts energy to return to this state and this is the basis for strategies of resilience and adaptability.
From a biological perspective an organism does what it can to survive – if it is too hot it will attempt to find ways to cool down, if there is threat it will move to safety, if it is hungry it will look for food. This natural process is going on all around us and the ecosystem is a web of interconnected symbiotic relationships that operate within a dynamic balance.
Of course, as humans we are also part of this ecosystem and are governed by the same biological imperatives. In addition we have evolved the capacity to add thinking, reason and imagination as an extra layer on top of this basic need for survival.
In many ways this is a great gift and provides the foundation for art, technology and all the advancements we have seen in society. However, it can also be a curse – thinking and imagination are at the heart of anxiety, shame, stress and depression.
Our thinking brain can see threats where there aren’t any and can drive motivations that are misguided. Overthinking can be the source of our own discomfort, disturbing our sense of mental and physical homeostasis.
We know that we can be tricked by optical illusions, yet this knowledge doesn’t stop us being fooled by them. Unfortunately, this can also be true when we look closely at what motivates us. Our own intuitions often leave us wanting or chasing the wrong things.
When we talk about being ‘hungry for success’ it refers to the search for something more than we currently have. If we are looking in the wrong places, then this hunger becomes insatiable and perpetuates a sense of dissatisfaction.
Our intuition tells us that our happiness or wellbeing will be improved once we achieve a certain status, have purchased the next latest thing, or have crafted the perfect look but all the science and research proves that this is not the case.
Sadly, we have a built a society that celebrates many of these things and locks us in a viscous cycle or craving more and more. Education, business, sport and consumerism all tell us that we will be happy once we have the next qualification, promotion, medal or shiny new toy. Add in the pressures of social media and we have a perfect recipe for fuelling greater levels of anxiety.
This is nothing new, the ancient wisdoms of Buddhism and Stoicism recognised the exact same thing (minus the social media!) over 2000 years ago.
Buddhism is based on Four Noble Truths – the first of which recognises the truth of suffering. A modern take on this might just be the recognition of the inevitability of dissatisfaction caused by craving more than we have or running away from our own fears or insecurities.
Similar to the Buddhist philosophy Stoicism also recognised the mental cost of attachment, the anxiety caused by the fear of losing what we have.
Fortunately, both these traditions made recommendations for how we break the cycle and return to a place of calm or equanimity. Buddhism encourages a greater emphasis on a compassion that can be extended to both the self and others making it more likely that we find harmony with those around us. Stoicism has many practices that cultivate gratitude for what we do have, recognising that all our possessions are just borrowed and at some point will return to nature.
The Buddhists and Stoics both encouraged greater curiosity to look more deeply into the heart of what might be driving our behaviours. With this increased sense of awareness and associated level of acceptance there is an opportunity for greater freedom in what we chose going forward.
There is lots we can take from these ancient wisdoms into the modern world. Under threat or when anxiety is present there is danger of self-serving behaviours that create separation locking us into a zero-sum game of winners and losers. Using some of these ageless strategies provides the capacity to reduce levels of stress, finding ways to utilise the best of our human minds to work in harmony with the people and world around us, producing collective solutions and working to create shared successes.