The Pursuit of Happiness

woman happy in nature

As I sit down to write my first blog post, I find myself flipping through various topics and subjects that seem to constantly come up in therapy with clients, and that are often discussed in Buddhist psychology. Ideas around happiness, the present moment, being still, sitting with feelings, etc….and the truth is, I could go on forever. The list of important issues that we need to be discussing in the realm of mental health seems almost endless; there is still so much shame, secrecy and stigma around suffering. We don’t love ourselves, and we feel constantly anxious, stressed out and unworthy. Not to mention different, broken and never enough.

But ultimately, all of these threads - these different angles and topics - hint at the same underlying question: What is the point?

Why are we here? Where do we find meaning? And are we living life in a way that is aligned with our highest selves, a lifestyle that supports love and joy and growth?

Our society is, in many ways, counter to the teachings of Buddhism and Buddhist psychology. We are raised in a fiercely individualistic culture, one that is largely focused on superficial and material wealth. We are obsessed with happiness and even in 2017, therapy is stigmatized, as if being anything other than happy is a problem, an illness to be treated within the confined walls of a therapist’s office.

But the reality of life is far different than that of the culture in which we live – the truth of being human is that we suffer. We feel pain and we need connection. We can’t do it alone. Superman/woman doesn’t exist, and the constant striving for perfection – doing more, being more, achieving more – leaves us all miserable.

So why can’t we all just give up the act and be REAL? Why are we all killing ourselves – literally and metaphorically – in our attempts to “keep up with the Jones’s” when the Jones’s don’t even EXIST?

Suffering is not fun, to say the least – it hurts and it feels bad and none of us like it. But something that feels “bad” (ie, distressing) isn’t inherently bad. Somehow, at some point in time, we decided to perceive emotions on a dichotomous scale from “happy” (good) to “sad” (bad). But feelings alone have no inherent value – just because something hurts, because it’s painful or uncomfortable, does not mean that it’s “bad” or “wrong” or “not okay”. As Buddhists say “No mud, no lotus”: there is no “good” without “bad”, no light without darkness, no yin without yang. In Buddhist terms, life – and health, both mental and physical – is about balance. It’s about finding the middle way, the space between grasping and aversion.

So next time you feel “bad” – stressed out, anxious, depressed, unhappy – let it be simply that: the feeling, without any value judgments attached to it. When we learn to understand our emotions in that light – in a way that is free from biases and pre-conditioned notions and social pressures – we find that our feelings can’t kill us, like we fear they can. We learn to sit with what hurts, to accept what “is”, and to pursue life, which is far greater, far richer and far more meaningful than the pursuit of happiness can ever be.