Happiness is slippery. It doesn’t like to stick around. We know we’ve had it before, but it’s gone away, and we know there are certain things we have to do to find it again. Certain ducks have to be in a row. After all, if you didn’t have to do anything to be happy, you wouldn’t do anything at all. It can’t be too hard to find. Other people seem to be finding it all right.
Yet for all our efforts, we never seem to get this happiness problem nailed down, and there’s a very good reason for that.
When we start talking about solving the problem of unhappiness, it’s hard to avoid the topic of Buddhism. I know not everyone is a fan, but they have lain some important groundwork, even for those of us who like the idea of improving our quality of life but aren’t prepared to buy the whole package, with all its baldness and orange robes. Despite its promises of peace and enlightenment, I haven’t leapt in with abandon, so don’t worry, this article doesn’t delve into pratitya-samutpadas and tathagatagarbhas. It’s about a plain-jane concept you know very well: happiness.
Buddhism developed as a response to mankind’s search for happiness. In the simplest terms, it’s not a belief system but a methodology for being happy. Yet Buddhist literature is known for focusing much more on suffering than happiness. Its curious preference for morbid subject matter has led some to describe Buddhism as preoccupied with negativity.
The reason suffering has become Buddhism’s primary focus, rather than happiness, is that happiness, as we conceive of it, doesn’t really exist — at least not in the same way suffering does. What we refer to as happiness is really just what the absence of suffering feels like.
Although it’s become the favorite term for the concept, “suffering” is really not an adequate word. The Buddhists call it dukkha. Suffering is perhaps the most common English substitution, but I’ve also seen anguish, unease, dissatisfaction, stress, discomfort, or unsatisfactoriness. None of them are quite right, and so many writings in English will use dukkha.
I avoid the casual use of Sanskrit or Pali words in my articles because I think they make a lot of readers tune out, as they sense they’re being led into an esoteric religious discussion. Books and articles about Buddhism can get pretty dry and cryptic, scaring away readers who would otherwise be fascinated by the very same concepts if they weren’t presented in such stuffy, user-unfriendly language. But for the rest of this article I’ll use dukkha, if it hasn’t scared you off yet.
“Unease” might be the best of the English translations of dukkha. The original word was meant to evoke the feeling of a potter’s wheel that would screech as it turned.
I often substitute dukkha with “suffering” but I realize that may be misleading for those not acquainted with the Buddhist meaning of that word. Before I encountered “suffering” in the Buddhist context, it meant something different to me. It meant great pain. Sobbing, aching, despair.
Suffering, from a Buddhist perspective, refers not so much to outright catastrophe as to the persistent, low-intensity feelings of dissatisfaction or yearning that human beings feel most of the time. Indeed, most of our “suffering” is extremely minor:
- The faint hint of financial angst you get when you notice gas has gone up again
- The tiny feeling of urgency you get when you discover you only have 19 more minutes to get ready to go, and you thought you had 30
- The slight unease you feel when you’re opening a gift in front of the person who gave it to you, and you want to make sure you look pleased no matter what you really think of it
- The sinking, “here we go again” feeling you get when so-and-so begins to get impatient with the waitress
This is dukkha. This is life.
Moments in which unease is not present are wonderful. There is a light, problemless, “everything in its right place” quality to them. We’ve all had these moments, and they aren’t particularly rare, but they are not your typical moment.
Often they happen when you experience something so powerful that it wrests all of your attention away from your thinking mind, such as a picturesque sunset or an incredible piece of music.
Other times, this peace blindsides you at a perfectly ordinary moment, maybe when you’re filling up a glass of water and you’re taken by a perfect, glowing triangle of sunlight on the countertop. Suddenly the mind shuts off, you can hear the delicate background noise of the kitchen and the surrounding neighborhood, and everything looks and sounds exactly as it should.
The potential for it seems to be always there.
Buddhism’s genius is that it reduces all human problems to a single one: the problem of dukkha. This is a very powerful perspective. The implication is that our ordinary state is one of peace, perfection, problemlessness, and clarity – the very things we are always ultimately seeking. Dukkha is the only thing standing between a problematic moment and a problemless one. The problem is not gas prices, or your bank balance, or your love handles. Without dukkha, none of them would be problems. The price of fuel would strike you as perfectly appropriate, as would your net worth and your physique.
The Buddha developed a method for transcending dukkha, but many other approaches have been discovered since by sages, psychologists, seekers and average joes. They all amount to overcoming your attachments in the moment.
…what’s left when you take away unhappiness.
Since the only problem we ever have is the presence of unease in our moments — and not the absence of anything — happiness itself doesn’t really exist. It’s just what we call moments in which we don’t experience dukkha. And that means what we refer to as “happiness” is always there behind the current moment’s unease; ultimately, it is always accessible.
I find it’s more empowering to think of happiness this way — as the absence of unease, and nothing else — and here’s why:
We tend to think of happiness as something “out there,” waiting just beyond some future achievement or change in circumstances. This makes our happiness contingent on factors we cannot directly control. If we think of unhappiness (or unease) as a function of how we are relating to the present moment — whatever it contains — then we always have an opportunity to improve the quality of our moment. This way power over our quality of life resides with ourselves, and not with luck, status or other externals.
Happiness is too easily confused with gratification. Gratification is simply getting what you currently want. It provides a fleeting cessation of unease, which makes it feel awesome, like an end in itself. It is such an intense release that it feels as if the problem has been conquered, when really it’s only been chased away for a short while. As a strategy for happiness, gratification is a poor one for three reasons:
- You can’t always get what you want
- Depending on getting what you want in order to be happy increases your attachment to getting what you want, which intensifies the suffering you’ll experience next time
- Getting what you want often makes it harder to get other things you’ll soon want — for example, when you spend all your money on what you want right now
The typical approach to seeking happiness is to add something to our lives, because we perceive ourselves as needing something we are missing: more security, more money, another possession, the approval of others, a personal achievement. But on closer inspection even these actions are actually driven by a desire to remove something: insecurity, hunger, angst, tension of some kind. We are driven to acquire and achieve in order to remove dukkha from our experience.
There is no happiness
“Don’t seek happiness. If you seek it, you won’t find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness.” ~Eckhart Tolle
Happiness (or whatever you want to call that state we are all seeking — joy, well-being, peace) occurs when something is removed, not when something is added. Happiness is an opposite, a negative mold — an imaginary abstraction created to define precisely what it is not. It’s no different than darkness, which itself is nothing at all — only a way of describing an absence of light. Light is real, darkness is just a concept.
So why did we get it backwards? As with most of our inefficiencies, we evolved that way. For millions of years our behavior has been driven by dissatisfaction, which manifests itself in a sentient creature as desire. Our very clever biology has us desiring, non-stop, for anything that appears to put us into a better position to survive. It’s the ultimate carrot-and-stick setup, and we still fall for it because we don’t know what else to do. We can always use more security, more esteem, more power, so the desires never cease. It works very well to the survival end, by constantly creating a mental itch that must be scratched. This itch is unhappiness, unease, or to Buddhism fans, dukkha.
This is how the human mind works now. It creates unhappiness to keep us moving, with no regard for our quality of life. You can scratch the itch your whole life and it won’t go away. It will only put you in the habit of scratching the itch. The human mind has developed to a point where we are finally understanding this awful cycle, and developing ways of dealing with it. About 2500 years ago — a New York minute, in evolutionary time — a curious young prince nailed the problem down. He found we weren’t actually missing anything after all.
Happiness, it seems, is just a shadow. By continuing to gaze at it, we’ve overlooked what’s standing in the light.