“Ultimately, happiness comes down to choosing between the discomfort of becoming aware of your mental afflictions and the discomfort of being ruled by them.”
-Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche
Never before in history have so many believed that they ‘should’ be happy. Our Western, post-Enlightenment era sees happiness as a matter of individual choice and effort. If you are not happy, then you simply need to work harder to amass more—more wealth, more beauty, more achievement, even more spirituality. Contrast our view with that of Ancient Greece, where well-being was seen as the result of luck and favorable fortune from the gods; or the Aristotelian schools, where well-being was seen to consist primarily in virtuous action; or the Eastern traditions, where well-being resides in transcending the illusion of a separate self, and we see that our current belief in happiness as the ultimate in human well-being is not consistent with past formulations. The question emerges: Is our current Western understanding and quest for happiness harmful?
Our cultural spirit of personal responsibility combined with the assumption that happiness should be the natural human state has devastating fallout: Many individuals fear painful emotions like a sickness. Brené Brown, Ph.D., a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, posits that one of the main reasons we are the most medicated, obese, depressed cohort ever to go through history is because we turn to addictive behaviors to numb what we think is “wrong.” While clinical depression is a serious condition that deserves appropriate treatment, far too many Americans spend their lives in the tireless pursuit for a better life free of discomfort, haunted by insidious dissatisfaction and a desire for something they can’t quite name (Weil, 2011). Yet, echoed throughout the ages in Greek, Christian, and Eastern philosophy, pain is understood as an inevitable part of life and growth.
Consider the concept of Greek tragedy, a form of entertainment specifically designed to bring individuals together around human suffering to invoke group catharsis. Perhaps giving up our myopic pursuit of happiness to celebrate the inevitable unpredictability of human life and the full spectrum of human emotion is the first step toward a flourishing society.
As a meditation teacher, the most important aspect of my work is teaching individuals how to relate to their painful emotions and inadequacies with kindness, rather than trying to “fix” or get rid of them. The relief students experience when they learn their feelings of loneliness and angst are perfectly normal, the result of a brain evolved for survival, not happiness, is life-changing. Freed from the shame incurred by believing they are somehow uniquely flawed, they can then move from isolation to connection and from self-condemnation to self-acceptance.
An Emotional Orientation of Acceptance
Spiritual and contemplative concepts such as “letting go” and “acceptance” highlight an important corrective for the Western understanding of well-being. While many spiritual traditions celebrate yielding to a something greater than the self, the Buddhist perspective is particularly suited for Western psychology because of the dominant focus on the nature of mind and self. Over the past two decades, the exchange of ideas between Buddhism, psychology, and neuroscience have broadened our understanding of well-being, leading to new ways of treating mental disorders, for example Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, as well as maximizing the human potential for self-regulation and positivity.
A primary teaching in Buddhism is that while pain is inevitable (loved ones will get sick, we will age, and mortality is our final destination), suffering is optional. Suffering arises from resisting the aspects of our lives and ourselves that are beyond our control. Chris Germer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Arlington, Massachusetts, demonstrates the point with a simple equation: suffering = pain x resistance. An understanding of human happiness that incorporates the language of acceptance is likely the most potent resource for handling the aspects of our lives and ourselves that we cannot change. To use the metaphor of a garden, before we can flourish, we must fertilize the soil with an emotional orientation of acceptance that can hold our fundamental human insufficiency and imperfection.
While compassion for the self has been discussed in Eastern traditions for centuries, the concept is new to Western psychology. Kristin Neff, Ph.D., a professor in human development and culture at the University of Texas at Austin, recently defined the construct of self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness toward oneself, taking an understanding, nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing one’s experience is part of the common human experience.” Excitingly, a growing body of research demonstrates that self-compassion powerfully enhances psychological well-being, resilience, and motivation. Furthermore, developing a more compassionate relational stance towards the self powerfully affects the brain and nervous system to enhance self-regulation. Seemingly counterintuitive, relating to our human imperfection with warmth and acceptance, as opposed to criticism and control, actually improves our ability to move toward the lives we want for ourselves and flourish.
As anxiety and depression continue to rise in the Western world, the time has come to seriously examine our expectation for a pain-free, perfect life in the pursuit of happiness. Over 40 years ago, humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow stated that ‘‘the great cause of much psychological illness is the fear of oneself—of one’s emotions, impulses, memories, capacities, potentialities.” He encouraged self-understanding as a means to cultivate what he called “B-perception,” a nonjudgmental, forgiving, loving awareness of our whole Being”(Maslow, 1968). Today, the concept of self-compassion echoes Maslow’s call. The time is now. Instead of striving for the illusive state of happiness, lets choose to get honest about what it really means to be human; come together in dialogue about the inevitable darkness; and turn toward ourselves and each other with kind understanding. Instead of striving for happiness, let’s cultivate a mindful presence that can hold the entirety of our experience, the joys and the sorrows, the beauty and the terror.