What if enjoyment is a skill that you can improve?
Not a personality trait, but a skill.
I don’t mean to confuse enjoyment with happiness — I think happiness is too big to be a skill — and something that is largely our of our control — but what about enjoyment — what if enjoyment is simply the skill of putting joy into an experience?
That would be a skill worth learning, wouldn’t it? That, in fact, something like that might be the most important skill you could learn or teach your kids.
I filched this idea from a brilliant documentary with and about Carl Reiner. it’s called something like “Every morning I read the obituaries. If I’m not in there, I eat breakfast.” It’s about people flourishing in their 90’s. And several people in it make the comment that old people of WWII vintage, seem to have this skill of enjoying things more.
Like a cup of coffee. While drinking a cup of coffee it becomes, the greatest cup of coffee you’ve ever had. Kind of. I think the point is tough to explain and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Here’s how I unpack it.
Every person is cursed, in a way, by a bottomless need for satisfaction. You can never have enough. You could always have something a little better. Your car might be fine, but there’s a newer shinier one. And even if you don’t feel this way about your car, you certainly feel that way about something.
Your house is nice, but there’s a nicer one out there. Maybe it’s smaller, maybe it’s bigger, maybe it’s newer — or older or on the ocean or a mountain. Maybe you’re totally enlightened, independently wealthy and just live to do Yoga all day long. We’ll, there’s always a nicer yoga mat — or pair of stretchy pants to make your ass look just that much more enlightened.
We are the animal that is never, completely, satisfied. We can always torture ourselves by imagining an incremental improvement to paradise. And, even if we got everything we could ever want, as soon as we had it, we wouldn’t want it any more. We would then become bored and have to blow it all to hell.
Wants and desires are bottomless, troublesome things.
So let’s go back to the cup of coffee. While it’s true that there’s always a better cup of coffee out there. There is also an almost infinite number of ways the cup of coffee you have in your hand could be worse. Could be too cold — or too hot — too bitter or too sweet. But that cup of coffee and the moment you have it is is THE ONLY ONE you can be sure of having. Tomorrow is uncertain — as is the very next minute.
Most of the modern world is set up to insulate us from this truth, but it’s inescapable. That cup of coffee you have might not be as good as a cup of coffee you remember, but there’s joy in it. I mean, unless it’s poisoned, you’re getting satisfaction out of drinking it. And I think some people are better at squeezing satisfaction out of things than others. And it’s not entirely a matter of temperment.
This is not about being a pessimist or optimist. And, in fact, I think pessimist can enjoy when things are bad — and in some sense — most do. I am not a pessimist, but I /enjoy/ complaining. Not whining, you understand, but there is an art to well-crafted grumble. In fact, when things are truly awful, I find a source of joy in black humor. I don’t want things to be bad so I can be funny, but when you can create joy in the direst of straights with humor. It’s a gift from God. It’s a superpower. I mean, it might not fix anything in the long run, but it’s a pause button on suffering. And if you don’t think that is really worth something, you’ve been very fortunate.
I have a friend — 100% true story and not a joke — I have friend who once got got stabbed and not by accident. In the emergency room they asked him if was allergic to anything. He had the presence of mind to say , “Yes, knives. Now would you stitch me up?”
But I can also think of another loophole for the bottomless sucking pit of want inside each of us. Love. Love is a primary, fundamental experience of enjoyment.
You don’t love your dog less because there are better dogs out there. In fact, in a real sense, there aren’t better dogs out there for you. To lose your dog is not to say, “oh, yeah, great now I can upgrade my dog.” You lose your minds when you lose their dogs. Your heart breaks, you search everywhere. You put up posters. Implore strangers to be on the lookout.
You don’t love your kids or your spouse in spite of their flaws. You love them BECAUSE of their flaws. You find joy in them because they are are the only them there could ever be. Your love infuses them with joy for you.
Sure, love, marriage, families, cups of coffee — all of it can go wrong in countless, tragic ways. Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.
But I don’t that alone invalidates my suspicion. I think enjoyment is a skill. I’m pretty sure I can get better at it. And I think you can too.