In the classic American poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,’ by Clement Clarke Moore, “the children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads.” Then, we woke up.
Inherent to the grown-up American dream is the pursuit of individualism. Consumers race towards the latest gadget on Black Friday or compete socially distant on Cyber Monday. As a country that chants an “overcome victimization” narrative, whispers are heard in our sleep— you can accomplish anything with determination and hard work. The Vision, Mission and Values of our favorite brands dance in our heads.
Consumerism’s Link With Empathy
Chevrolet murmurs, “The heartbeat of America,” Nike reminds us to “Just do it” and Sprite tells us it’s ok to “Obey your thirst.” Coke suggests we can “open happiness.” So we beat on, fists on the chain gang, against the current of manicured fingers tapping intrepidly on the keyboard, borne again ceaselessly into the future.
The meritocracy dream to accomplish our Great Gatsby constantly evolves, especially, the means and ways ‘success’ can be achieved. The pursuit for ‘identity’ calls for mass production of its aim across t-shirts and tv-ads. Brand messaging leaves us, individuals, devoid of the feeling inside.
Pepsi mirrors Coke as “the choice of a new generation.” Geico patronizingly says “so easy a caveman can do it.” Gatorade poses us the greatest existential question of all: “is it in you?”
Is What in You?
Here is my take on five psychological experiences and how they might be applicable intrinsic gifts to your life today.
Empathy, Pain, Acceptance, Joy, Connection
These natural sensations are already inside of you but usually require the reflection of human beings. Recent data shows that one in five millennials have no friends at all. Another survey found 71% of millennials and 79% of Gen Z respondents report feeling lonely— much higher than past generations. Basic human skills like empathy, cultivating acceptance, joy and connection are lost in the hunt for individual accomplishment. Pain becomes placated with products and material possessions. America’s growing generation of loneliness comes as a disappointing guest for the holidays. What gifts do we give? What do we really want?
Chevrolet — “The heartbeat of America”
Empathy — “The Heartbeat of the Universe”
One of the first tools of separation in our myth of separateness was ‘identity.’ This system of identity was to identify our individualism. Without arbitrary borders and labels, we would all be the same people, but when you draw lines to your own suffering, you close off the suffering in others. Connection becomes harder to tune towards. In ways that purchased products do not provide, empathy exposes the impact of difficult conditions. Through this exposure, we open our hearts rather than Coke cans. Empathy heals pain from its recognition, builds an internal toolkit of resilience and preserves our sense of self-worth. Our ability to bring compassion to ourselves and others, protects us from falling prey to present-day marketing masks. Through empathy, you cut through beliefs on identity that helped our ancestors survive. This allows you to flow with the evolutionary current of suffering and restrain an emotional reaction to the pain or loneliness the myth of separation causes.
Nike — “Just Do It”
Pain — “Just Feel It”
Empathy Through Pain⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀
Pain is a universal, natural experience that the brain is wired to respond to. When you experience something painful, physically or psychologically, the brain sends signals to your body that you are in distress. If you hit your funny bone or face rejection, the brain registers these experiences in the same neural network of the brain. As long as you are alive and feel affection, some pangs of pain will come your way.
To borrow a term from the Buddha, inescapable discomfort is the “first dart” of existence. Maybe you struck your elbow on an open cabinet because it was late at night. Another instance could be heartbreak. You checked your phone after a date and read a text message that said, “It was really nice to hang out but I’m not interested anymore.” The dart, the blood flow rushing to your elbow, or disappointing drops in your stomach are painful to everyone.
When you add a psychological or personal reaction to sensations, you throw a “second dart” to your mind and body. Your second pang, the internal shame, silence or fury, creates heedless discomfort to your circumstance. Every human feels pain but you choose to suffer. Suffering comes from your relationship to pain, not the sensation of pain itself. The boundary you place between yourself and the world, between what you are and what you dream to achieve, or place labels or expectations on others, separates what is already connected.
Sprite — “Disobey Your Thirst”
Acceptance — “Disobey your Loneliness”
The first pang is unavoidable, thanks to the evolution of our harsh physical and social environments. The second pang is optional. You choose to react, turn inward or grab a fleeting pleasure. You can hold onto surges of anger or sink into rumination, with your hands gripping empty Coke cans as you thirst for sips of kool-aid. That pang often masks your ability to open true happiness.
When you stay with the first pang of pain, you only have to deal with impersonal pain. This allows you to approach a situation with greater acceptance, clarity and connection with others. Perhaps you tame the flame and speak calmly with your housemates about kitchen responsibilities or keep your heart open to find the right partner. When you stay with whatever pain surfaces, you invite moments of awakening in, to approach opportunities, avoid threats and respond to others needs.
Pepsi — “ The Choice of a New Generation”
Joy — “The Choice of Our Generation Now”
At the heart of the human experience, lies natural attachment bonds that bring us together. In “The Compassionate Instinct,” Dacher Keltner describes the biological basis of compassion and human evolution of empathy. We feel good when we can alleviate physical or psychological suffering.
It does not matter what identities you associate with, (family, ethnicity, nationality, religion, mother tongue, race, gender, class, culture, or profession), humans connect to one another’s pain. We literally feel it. We need to care for others beyond brand messaging to overcome our own pains, cultivate a sense of joy, belonging and community with those who may or may not have identities like ours.
Research out of Emory University found helping others actually gave the person who helped pleasure. James Rilling and Gregory Berns gave participants the chance to help someone while their brains were recorded. When participants helped others, their activity in brain regions that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure (caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate) activated.
This indicates that when we help others, the same pleasure we get from the fulfillment of personal desire arises. On the flip side, research out of Princeton University found when subjects contemplated harm being done to others, a similar network of regions in their brain lit up, registering the pain as their own.
Geico — “So Easy a Caveman Can Do it”
Connection — “So Easy Anyone Can Do It”
You can’t buy social skills. You can cultivate connection right now. Bring to mind someone who really loves you. When you think of someone you naturally feel compassion for, you arouse a neural underpinning (oxytocin, insula and PFC) that activates the deep attachment system circuit in your brain.
Try to extend this feeling to yourself. There’s no reason why compassion to others can not gently touch you too. Place your hand on your heart or put your palm on your cheek with tenderness (and clean hands). Actions related to a feeling strengthen it. Let this moment sink in.
When you honor psychological gifts already inside, you don’t suspend the American dream. Activation of empathy, pain, acceptance, joy and connection serves as a reminder that individual freedom is bound with others’ liberation. In order to become free or reach any ‘American Dream,’ you must first see yourself in others. During this holiday season, let’s give and receive gifts that really matter— the ones from within.
Gatorade — Is it in you?