I am absolutely certain that you have already anticipated a desire. Perhaps you have imagined the taste of a dish that you cook by inventing all its flavours? Perhaps you have considered the success of a work in progress? Maybe you even projected the sensations of a consented kiss before knowing if your attraction was shared?
When did you have the most fun? At the time of imagining or at the time of tasting? After making the same cake 10 times, did the fun fade? And if you didn’t get what you wanted, how did you feel?
From your three answers, follows one of the keys to happiness. Understanding how desire works allows us to enjoy more of our pleasures and to feel more intensely what life has to offer us.
First of all, the pleasure is in the fantasy, more than in its realisation. It is at the precise moment when planning a reward that our brain gives us the most dopamine, the famous pleasure substance. If things go exactly as planned, we don’t have more pleasure. You just feel a kind of continuity. And as you may have noticed before, the more predictable the outcome of a situation, the less intense the pleasure. It is a form of habituation. We speak in positive psychology of hedonistic addiction. When pleasure is predictable, the feeling of pleasure subsides, allowing us to drift into new desires. Conversely, you have probably noticed that the pleasure is more intense when the outcome is uncertain. Any good film avoids an overly predictable end that would leave us little stimulated.
But what happens when our prediction of pleasure does not come true? We will then feel frustration, this sensation close to anger, when we have planned a pleasure and someone or something gets in the way of its realisation: ‘Who ate the last biscuit prepared by my grandmother?’
These very simple observations, which can be tested as much as necessary if you feel like it, open up a strategy we all tend to use. We create goals or anticipate desires to manage our emotions. And we will compensate for our frustrations with new anticipations. We thus recreate a loop because these new expectations will have to be met to avoid new frustrations. And this spiral in itself is a form of behavioural addiction. It’s a bit like living on the credit of our own desire.
I could give you a thousand examples, but the suffering I hear most often is effective dependence. A loved one, especially if his or her behaviours are difficult to predict, creates a hope, a fantasy. But when things get real, they disappear, leaving frustration. The renewed dream: ‘Tomorrow, soon, you will see…’ recreates the pleasure in the waiting. The relationship turns into an erotic novel, the reading of which avoids a feeling of loneliness or sadness. The anticipation of a hot reunion shades the absence or the shortcomings of the real relationship.
Generally speaking, we tend to use pleasure to deal with the feeling of disconnection. Those times when we are out of step with reality. The remedy is simple but takes courage – it is in the present that we find a form of reconnection. It is here and now, that we can find the traces of a path of true love.
Try to notice, right now, how do you feel? What sensations do you perceive? What are your thoughts? The present moment is not always pleasant. I experience right now a feeling of tiredness in the eyes, the sound of cars passing in the street and the thought: ‘Is what I am writing clear enough?’
I don’t necessarily want to be in touch with all that. But to love does not only mean to appreciate. There is a deeper, more ‘cosmic’ meaning of the term. There is a phenomenon that is rooted in the physical laws of the cosmos called synchronisation. And guess what, for two physical elements to synchronise, they need to be connected. Simply put, it is by being fully connected to what is that one creates a form of harmony. It is in this presence to myself that I will be able to begin to love myself.
Spinoza enlightens us on the existence of two forms of joy. One is passive and waits for the world to respond to our desires. The other one is active and starts with us. It radiates from ourselves to the world.
By accepting noises as they are, my brain quickly integrates them and makes them disappear if they are not of interest. Listening to my fatigue, I decided to leave you and go to rest and meditate for a few minutes. Listening to my doubts, I will read what I wrote again later, and invite you to share your questions or your observations. Going through my sensory discomfort allows me to access my needs, to take care of myself as a being who deserves to be well.
But more deeply, I can also connect with the fact that I write for love and to offer my compassion. I thus connect to my active joys, which allow me to love infinitely even in the absence of another.
And you, what are your active joys?
Dr Isabelle Leboeuf is a psychologist and psychotherapist. In her practice, she integrates hypnotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and compassion-focused therapy.