So why aren’t we happy yet? What’s the problem?
Well, as it turns out, there isn’t just one problem, but a whole bunch of them. (Things are never that simple. I’ve gone ahead and bundled them into seven categories. I’m a bit of a category nut):
- The Problem of Conflicting Desires
- The Problem of Illegitimate Desires
- The Problem of Enchantment: Translating Desires into Needs
- The Problem of Supply and Distribution
- The Problem of Impermanence
- The Problem of Other People’s Imperfections
- The Problem of Our Own Imperfection
Each of these problems needs a little bit of explanation and elaboration.
The Problem of Conflicting Desires
We sometimes have several desires at once which are incompatible with each other. For example, we want to eat everything that appeals to us, but we also want to be thin. Or we want to have lots of money, but we don’t want to work too hard. Or we want to have a relationship with Sally, but we also want one with Joan. Or we want to please our parents, but we also want to do things our own way. We want to have our cake and eat it too. This is our unfortunate human condition. The world seems to have been arranged so that we just can’t have everything we want because the things we want are contradictory and exclude each other. In fact, it seems to be a general rule that whenever we chose something, we are not choosing something else. Every time we make a choice we are closing off other options. There is nothing we can do about this problem: this is something we just have to suck up.
The Problem of Illegitimate Desires
Sometimes we have a desire, but we’ve been told by our parents, partners, or teachers that we shouldn’t have it. We’ve been taught that the desire is illegitimate. When this happens, we may blame ourselves for having the desire, or we may pretend the desire doesn’t really exist. For example, you may be told that you shouldn’t have certain sexual desires: you shouldn’t feel like masturbating, or having sex outside of marriage, or having sex with a member of the same gender or a different race. Or you may have been told that you shouldn’t be selfish, or acquisitive, or independent, or aggressive. Or that you shouldn’t be soft-hearted, trusting, or sentimental. Or that you shouldn’t be curious, questioning, and innovative.
If one is going to think sanely about this issue, it is important to make a distinction between having desires and acting on them. Desires just happen, and we don’t ask to have them. We don’t ask, for example, to be homosexual or heterosexual, or have high or low sex drives. We just have certain desires or we don’t. We also can’t ask not to have them without ending up pretending and lying to ourselves. We do have the ability, however, to decide whether to try to fulfill those desires or not. A person might discover, for example, a desire for sex outside of his or her marriage and decide that it would be morally wrong to act on that desire. The important thing here is not to blame oneself or someone else for having the desire in the first place. So much human misery has been caused by the self-blame and low self-esteem that comes from believing one is bad because one has illegitimate desires. It is wiser to accept oneself fully in terms of recognizing one’s true desires; then one can control the satisfaction and frustration of those desires in accordance with the way one wants to live.
It’s a simple fact that we can better manage our desires when we see them and understand them correctly and without blame. The alcoholic who denies he’s really an alcoholic doesn’t make the decision to avoid alcohol at all costs. The alcoholic who is honest but not self-blaming can make wise choices and stay out of the bar. The alcoholic, however, who recognizes the desire but labels himself or herself as “bad” for having it just has one more reason to go out and get drunk.
When we don’t properly appreciate and understand our own desires, we often end up making our lives and the lives of others around us miserable. Think for a moment of a male homosexual who denies to himself that he is “gay,” and marries a woman just to prove to himself that he is “straight.” You can predict the results a few years down the road: an unhappy husband, an unhappy wife, and in the wake of the probable divorce, unhappy children. You see this same predicament in people who choose the wrong profession for themselves, or in couples who marry when they only think they are in love. Socrates’ injunction to “Know Thyself” involves our ability to know our true desires.
The Problem of Enchantment: Translating Desires into Needs
One problem with desire is that we often magically over-evaluate the thing we desire. On a ten-point Intensity of Desire Scale, we often assign the desired object a score of “11”. When we are in love, the person we love has no flaws, and is more wonderful than any other person who ever lived. We would give up everything to win their love in return; sometimes we do. When there is stylish dress, or a new cutting-edge electronic device, or a classy automobile we just have to have, the item we want changes from an object to an obsession, and there is enormous energy that arises as part of the yearning and wishing. Once we actually possess the loved one, or the dress, or the car, our evaluation of it begins to decline: our desiring loses some of its charge, excitement, and energy. How often have you noticed that our anticipation of attending a social event, for example, is often more fun that the event itself?
This initial intense charge, this infatuation, makes for a certain kind of enchantment by things: the desired object has us in its power. We are bewitched. What ought be just a desire has become a need in our own mental calculus. Once a desire has been turned into a need, it takes on a pre-eminent importance to us above what it should have, and this means that we will give more to obtain it than we ought to. It also means that if our attempts to obtain it are frustrated, we become angrier and more frustrated and upset than we would otherwise be. It can become something we would die for, or would kill for.
Learning to see desires as just desires and not as needs is an important part of making things right-sized in our lives. We can see how irrational our teenage children are when they need a special brand of clothing, or need to attend a particular party. From our special place of hard-earned maturity, we can see how childish they are. What is harder to see is just how childish we are when we need that bigger house, or that boat, or that promotion, or that elective office, or that early retirement. Or when we need to be thin, or to not look old, or to not become infirm. Learning how to live with what is reasonably possible, and to accept what is inevitable is an important part of learning how to be happy.
The Problem of Supply and Distribution
Economics has been called “the dismal science” because one of its central axioms is that desire always outstrips the ability of the world to satisfy it. There isn’t enough money, oil, gold, or diamonds to meet everyone’s wishes for them. There aren’t enough supermodels and hunks to go around as spouses for everyone. There aren’t enough brainy genes to make everyone a genius. Scarcity often makes things more valuable: the more rare it is, the more people want it. On the other hand, if something isn’t desirable, there often seems to be more than enough to go around: more than enough flu viruses, more than enough dust, more than enough mosquitoes.
To make things worse, when things are desirable, they aren’t distributed evenly. The powerful and important people get more than their fair share of things, and the rest of us make do with less. Or none. That’s not just true in capitalist societies. In feudal societies the nobility had it all and the peasants had next to nothing. In communist countries, the commissars had their dachas (vacation homes) on the Black Sea and the special schools for their children, and the best of healthcare, and the masses shared the poverty of the collective farm. The old joke has it that under Capitalism man exploits man, while under Communism, it’s just the opposite.
While some societies share the wealth more fairly than others, Western Europe, for example, is more equitable in sharing its wealth than is the United States, no society has even remotely done away with inequality. Some people are born into more advantaged families, genders, nations, or races, or they are bigger, faster, brighter, stronger, more beautiful, or more unscrupulous than others, and voila, there you have it: inequality.
As a result, you will never have everything you want, and there will always be someone who has something more than what you have. For some people this is an unmitigated tragedy and a cause of unending bitterness, for others it is “just life.” You get to choose which attitude you want to take towards it. Guess which one makes you happier?
In saying this I am not arguing in favor of inequality, and I am not suggesting we should not make real efforts to try to make the world fairer. I am just arguing for the wisdom of the Serenity Prayer that is recited in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: May you be granted the serenity to change the things you can, accept the things you can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference between them.
The Problem of Impermanence
If you succeed in getting the thing you desire, your next problem is that it won’t last. Nothing lasts forever. People grow old and sick and die. They fall out of love and they move away. You get that great new job, and the boss changes, or the company gets bought out or folds. Houses need painting and repair, car engines wear out and get thick with sludge. Mountains erode, climates change, nations rise and fall. Objects decay, entropy intrudes, times change. Eventually the sun will burn out and the universe will run down. Trust me. The Buddha said that all “compound phenomena are subject to decay.” By “compound phenomena,” he meant things that were made up of other things, namely, everything. Heraclitus said “You can’t step in the same river twice.”
Not only is the world constantly changing, but our feelings about the world are constantly changing too. There is a psychological law called habituation which basically says that the brain tires of responding to the same old same old. The first bite of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk Ice Cream is sublime. The 100th bite, not quite as delicious. The first time you hear that new hit song, it’s delightful. After a while you feel like you’ll scream if you hear it one more time.
Not only is the world always changing, and our emotional response to it always changing, but the contents of our minds is always changing, too. If you just sit and observe your thoughts, feelings, and sensations, you will see how they are all constantly changing. We are continuously learning new things and forgetting old things (unless we have Alzheimer’s Disease, in which case we forget the new even faster than we forget the old). We change our moods, our opinions, and our minds.
Our desires change as well. The books and movies we love as teenagers are not the same books and movies we love in old age. As a youngster I hated olives and anchovies, now I love them. The vocation you aspired to in grade school is not probably not the same vocation you are in, or want to be in, today.
While the law of impermanence says we can never be permanently happy because what we want changes and the things we acquire change, there is a bright side to it: it’s not all gloom and doom. If there was no change, we would never grow wiser or smarter, we would never overcome bad habits, and we would not learn new skills and information. We would never better our condition or invent or create something new. Change allows for the good as well as the bad. So let’s hear one cheer for the Law of Impermanence: Hooray.
The Problem of Other People’s Imperfections
Nobody’s perfect. And when it comes to other people, nobody’s even close. In fact, to tell the truth, most people are disappointing and annoying a reasonable percentage of the time. Even, or maybe especially, the people that you love. They have all these bad habits, and they do all these dumb things. Part of the problem is genetic. Half the population is below average. And humans share over 99% of their DNA with chimpanzees, so other people really aren’t much smarter or better behaved than chimpanzees. How could they be? Their biggest problem is that they don’t always put our own interests first. They often care more about themselves than they do about us. How selfish! And they aren’t always sufficiently attentive and appreciative of us. Can you imagine? They don’t hang on our every word, they don’t think all of our ideas are great ideas, and they don’t always anticipate our every need and satisfy them.
Even the best of people have all these flaws.
The Problem of Our Own Imperfection
There’s no doubt about it: We’re not perfect either: We’re not powerful enough to control the world. We’re not powerful enough to control our bodies and stop them from aging or becoming ill. We’re not even powerful enough to control our own minds. If you need proof of this, just try counting from one to ten without thinking about a white rabbit. Or try to have no thoughts at all for the next ten seconds.
There are certain kinds of errors we’re prone to making just simply because we’re human beings. As a species we tend to be irrational, impulsive, and overly focused on short-term gain. Think of those as design flaws.
In addition, we have limited vision and tend to be short-sighted. When chess masters are playing an opponent, they try to anticipate how their opponent will counter their next move, and what they will do in response, and how their opponent will respond to that. But even the best chess masters can only see several moves ahead. Our brains are only so big. As a result, our actions often have unintended consequences which we failed to anticipate.
As a result of our limited vision, all of our solutions to problems seem to create new problems. This is why there will never be a problem shortage. When the automobile was invented it was seen as an ingenious and affordable method for getting rapidly from Point A to Point B. No one back then guessed it would contribute to global warming, to air pollution, to dependency on the Middle East for oil, or to tens of thousands of deaths and brain injuries per year. When Thalidomide was prescribed by European gynecologists for morning sickness in their patients, they didn’t anticipate it would lead to an epidemic of birth defects. When air conditioners and cooling systems were invented to make the summer heat more tolerable, no one anticipated that they would become reservoirs for the microorganism that causes Legionnaire’s Disease. When Paris took Helen to be his wife, he didn’t expect the Trojan War.
As much as we try to think ahead and come up with “environmental impact statements” or other guestimates of the future impact of our decisions, we’ll always be woefully wrong. The variables that affect the future are so numerous, we can never fully take all of them into account. We’re like people lost in the night-time fog with little flashlights. We can shine the flashlight on the ground and see a few footsteps ahead, but not much further.
So there you have it. The seven reasons why you aren’t permanently and deliriously happy yet. I hope you’re satisfied.
I wish I could be satisfied with the list, but I’m not. I must have left something out, given my own imperfection. If you come up with any additional reasons, please post them in the comment section below.
Seth Segall, Ph.D. is a retired member of the clinical faculty of the Yale School of Medicine, the former Director of Psychology at Waterbury Hospital, and a former president of the New England Society for the Treatment of Trauma and Dissociation. He is the editor of Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings published by SUNY Press in 2003. His blog,The Existential Buddhist, explores issues related to Buddhist philosophy, psychology, ethics, meditation, and social activism from a non-dogmatic point of view. Seth is also a professional grandfather, classical piano student, gardener, environmental activist, and aspiring novelist. He is affiliated with White Plains Zen. You can follow Seth on Twitter by clicking here, or on Facebook by clicking here. Subscribe to his blog’s feed by clicking here.
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