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We have so much angst about not being happy.
Especially in Western societies, we convince ourselves that happiness will make everything we are going through better. More and more of us appear fixated with finding happiness, yet the majority of us generally appear less and less content with life.
Of course, we want to feel joy because who wants to be sad?
Who wants to experience tears of rejection or the deep, profound weight of grief resting within our being after losing a loved one, or the sorrow of not being able to hug family for a year because of a pandemic?
We judge these emotions as negative, so understandably no one wants that emotional pain. We reject the suffering.
The obvious remedy to all this woe is to aim for happiness, for us to do whatever we can to achieve that goal.
We see it all the time over the internet—memes about wanting to be happy, about how to achieve ever-lasting bliss, and how to make sure we’re never sad.
So much of what we see is trying to sell us on the idea that we can actually experience life like those Instagram influencers who try to pretend they are perfect and always jubilant. These social media accounts are followed by millions of us, paying attention to the next pearl of wisdom just in case the next nugget of information will be the one that helps us finally feel that euphoria that we so desire.
But how realistic is the target of being happy all the time?
The one thing we can be sure of is that nothing is permanent—nothing lasts forever.
The seasons come and go. The day turns to night and back to day again. One minute, it’s the weekend and the next, we’re back at work. We are born, we live, and then, we die. There are so many examples of how nothing remains the same.
Life shows us this truth if we pay attention.
Emotion is no different. Any emotion that arises, no matter how strong, positive, or negative, will eventually fall away and be replaced by another.
Think back to the last time you were happy, I mean truly happy. It was great, right? Wonderful even—that feeling that no matter what happened you couldn’t be brought down from the high you felt. But did it remain the same, or did it change? I’m betting you didn’t stay in that state forever because our physiology doesn’t allow it.
Answer the same question for when you last felt emotionally awful.
The truth is that the person who was happy yesterday may feel like crap today. Perhaps the person who has been experiencing ongoing depression finds herself smiling with pleasure as her cat sits on her lap, purring away, and the depression is nowhere to be seen.
I know when I was depressed and anxious—really deep in it—I would still experience lovely emotional moments.
It was the Buddha who told us that one of the causes of suffering is grasping and another is aversion. Wanting to be happy when we are not is both grasping after happiness and aversion for the emotions that we deem negative.
If only I would not feel this horrendous way, then everything in my life would be okay.
But has thinking that way ever worked?
Wanting things to be other than they are right in this second takes us out of the moment and robs us of this present experience. We suffer or experience “dukkha,” as the Buddha called it. Even if we’re happy and we think, “I wish that would never end,” we’ve taken the shine away from a great time because we’ve removed ourselves from it and started looking to the future by wanting something other than what can be.
I spent most of my life chasing the idea of happiness. I sought it in friendships, in relationships, in crazy nights out, and wild, out of this world-festivals when I would dance around high on life (and other things) chatting to interesting random strangers.
I also tried to find happiness in holidays, in sex, in the book that I was reading, down the gym lifting weights, or yet another night out on the town. Whatever I was doing, I was always looking for happiness that must be just around the corner.
Did I ever find the joy that I so wanted? Well, I had moments of happiness, moments of sometimes intense pleasure, but ultimately I never really found this infinite elation that the world seems to be on a permanent hunt for.
I never once questioned this search, and when I was dumped by my ex-fiancée, (who was probably sick of all my hunting the high of life) I rejected the intense pain I felt. I rejected it with drink, lots of drink, and a new relationship. Even though the person was manipulative, taking advance of my emotional weakened state, I embraced her with all my might because I was running from pain. I was searching for a way out from the reality I found myself in.
Running from what we deem to be negative and greedily trying to hold on to what we view as positive doesn’t work. The Buddha told us this 2,500 years ago. He didn’t even tell us we had to believe him. In fact, he told us not to, but he gave us the mindfulness tools so we could investigate these truths and recognise for ourselves that grasping and aversion will cause, at the very least, dissatisfaction with our lives.
In the end, despite having three beautiful children with my ex-wife, the relationship fell apart. Then, I fell apart. Making happiness a goal, no matter what the cost, brought me to the edge of suicide.
It was only as I looked deep into the abyss that I saw a way out that didn’t involve killing myself. I didn’t know the Buddha’s teachings back then, but I suddenly understood that I had no control over most things, and that was the nature of life. It is always the nature of life.
Whilst the amounts will change from person to person, in every life there will be joy, fear, kindness, anger, joy, disgust, surprise, love, grief, and many more emotions. It is impossible for it to be any other way. Think about this, deeply. Don’t run from anything. Really investigate this idea with an open, non-judgemental heart. I am sure you will see that this is true.
So, when no emotion is permanent, is the goal of happiness wise? Is it possible?
It’s not. So, why do we chase the impossible?
What is possible is that we can learn to accept life as it is right now, in this second. If we don’t reject our realities when they are “bad” or wish that they wouldn’t change when they are “good,” we can learn to live in peace with our lives.
As with everything with about mindful living, it is so much harder done than said. It takes practice: mindfully noting our lives in each moment, attempting to be present for what is, and not beating ourselves up when we get it wrong.
It was December 2014 when I nearly took the ultimate step to end my pain—and when I realised there was another way.
That recognition, however, didn’t stop the suffering I experienced. It took me several years before I was able to be able to accept my life as it was, even if only for a brief moment. The longer I practiced, the deeper those moments of peaceful acceptance of “what is” became.
Living in acceptance of what is doesn’t mean we’re inactive.
For instance, if we don’t like our job, we can still look for a new one. It means we have peace in each moment, even when things aren’t great. We take away the suffering that grasping and aversion have added to life.
I’ll give you an example from my own life of how this can work. I love my children to bits but, unfortunately, in the divorce with their mum, I lost almost all the money I had been building up for well over 15 years. I had to start from scratch.
I’m fortunate now to be in a loving relationship. My partner has a home which is now my home, but it’s not big. Buying a bigger place currently isn’t an option. We have two bedrooms and that means, when they are over, my three kids are in a single room.
This wouldn’t be ideal even with small children. My two boys, however, are teenagers and a single room is nowhere near enough space for them. At some points, over the weekend, they will ask to go back to their mum’s house because they want to be in their own rooms.
I love my children and have missed out on a lot of time with them. So when my boys want to leave early, sadness always arises. Always. There’s a sorrow for what we all lose because of the circumstances.
There’s also regret that my children won’t have similar memories to what I had from my childhood. Sometimes, I’m visited by anger for the unfairness of it all but I’ve learned that this is the nature of life. These kinds of emotions will arise at times like this, but when I don’t attach to them and follow them into the depths and—if I accept them, rather than reject them—I still feel peace deep within me.
Acceptance of what is won’t protect us from pain. The pain in life is inevitable, but it can bring us a deep-seated peace with our lives as they truly are.
So, instead of happiness, shouldn’t your goal be to work out how to have peace with what is?