On my recent travels to Sri Lanka, I discovered something. The key to a good life is embracing the bad.
Our understanding of happiness has been deeply confused with societal and media-infused hysteria over “feeling good”. The notion that our happiness is related to the number of times we feel good is the reason why we struggle to deal with pain, and to understand what it is to be happy.
A bit of clickbait graced my screen the other day: “So you’ve already ruined your New Year’s resolution, what next?”. My mind already generates enough goal-oriented and judgment-fuelled tasks day-in, day-out: Have I eaten well enough? Am I a being a good friend? A good partner? Am I drinking too much? Do I watch too much TV? Could I be giving more to charity? Did I do well at my job today? Have I gone to the dentist recently? When did I last speak to Mum? I really should read more…you get the gist.
What scares me a lot of the time though, is when I answer one of these questions negatively. “I am slightly overweight, I binge watched some TV on the weekend, I think I’ve been a bit selfish recently and overall I just don’t think I am doing that well.”
Why is any of these answers not okay?
The misconception which is causing so many headaches (and also fuelling bogus journalism) is that happiness is contingent upon this “feeling good”. Or worse, that the two are the same.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari’s illustration of this is inescapable. A group of new mothers were asked to list what they didn’t enjoy about having a child. Predictably the list was dense. When asked the inverse of the same question, they often struggled to find “enjoyable” moments that they had shared with the child. Finally, they were asked whether having the child was a worthwhile experience. Again predictably, the answer was overwhelmingly “yes”. Harari then makes the point that happiness is not equal to the oversimplified equation of “number of good times less number of bad times”. Noticeably, if someone appears to be joyful all the time, we actually don’t buy it. It’s not real.
He smiled and explained: good sensations or emotions should be experienced like a delicious mouthful of food – when it’s in your mouth you enjoy it for all it’s worth, but when it’s gone, it’s gone, there’s no point trying to bring it back.
So why do we continue to strive for it?
Often, this unrealistic obsession with “feeling good” is propelled by a fear of the other end of the spectrum of emotions. Driven by fear, we very rarely take the time to consider what is actually going on when experiencing an unpleasant thought or emotion. When we feel pain or sadness, often we react irrationally and far too quickly. We are so quick to label it and then we get straight into combatting it. Before we are even aware of what we are reacting to, we are on the path to “feeling better” – “I know, I’ll go on a detox”, “I’ll exercise more”, “I’ll stop drinking”.
It is in the avoidance itself that we suffer, beating ourselves down a path of prevention without even knowing what it is that we’re preventing.
Thus, the idea of “feeling bad” is not necessarily the emotion or the thoughts or the bodily sensations themselves, but rather the reaction to those thoughts and those emotions and those bodily sensations which exacerbate the problem. It’s self-perpetuating. We block any thoughts associated with the emotions. To spend the time to just notice that we are caught up in something before we are consumed by our ensuing reaction is rare. This entire process begins with the concept which we attach to the emotion or the feeling when it is “not good”.
With regards to these moods, our minds are so quick to pigeonhole everything into a label – that is what they are trained to do. Admittedly, it makes things easier. Labels are really the building blocks of understanding. When dealing with emotions, however, a label can retard rather than catalyse understanding.
For example, a few years ago I was diagnosed with depression. It wasn’t all that grave or untreatable: I had neglected a few things in my mind for too long and so after years of avoidance, they had become overwhelming. They required attention. Labelling this mood or sensation as depression was helpful as a concept, as when I went to the psychologist we could discuss a tangible state of mind that I was experiencing.
Beyond this initial practicality, however, I started to notice that I would often just brand the beginning of a bad mood as depression and hence a lot of the time, most of the suffering I went through was purely through relentlessly avoiding what I thought could happen rather than addressing what was actually going on. Again, if I had not been so quick to brand it, I might have learned with interest what was behind the mood or even better, not have reacted to it, not fuelled it.
The same can be said for any daily emotion.
People are better at confronting and exposing their emotional baggage than ever before. But given that we are now aware of its presence, are we now not avoiding it? Trying to keep it at bay? Clinging to the good times when it’s not present.
You see, most would say that blindly skipping through life, buoyed by “feeling good” is not something to be wary of. But in fact, we are now so preoccupied with evading “feeling bad” and what terrible fate that may entail, that we fail to notice the pitfalls of the other side of the equation: the obsession with “feeling good”. We are simply not aware that they are in fact one and the same. You cannot have one without the other (an observation so beautifully illustrated in Disney Pixar’s Inside Out).
Personally, I have never had any problem confronting things I am upset about. In fact, due to an overbearing curiosity to understand my depression more, I recently spent 10 days on a Vipassana meditation retreat in Sri Lanka (something you can do in nearly every country in the world). The core philosophy of Vipassana is that our minds are constantly either clinging to or averting phenomena; wanting to feel good, avoiding feeling bad. Without focusing on it, this happens naturally; we are slaves to our fears and desires. It can be as simple as a craving a “like” on Facebook or avoiding bumping into an ex. The conscious and often unnerving step you have to take is to try and observe these habit patterns of your mind without reacting to them. To try and see them for what they are before getting caught up in them.
With this understanding and as someone who has spent a fair chunk of time trying to understand their mental illness, I always assumed that my greatest demon on retreat would be dealing with pain. I was so incredibly wrong. Objectively observing my pain, whether mental or physical, was a piece of cake compared to the all-consuming blackhole of craving and desire. In fact, the only reason I suffered so much while experiencing a bad or painful sensation was because (often subconsciously) I would cling to a nice sensation or a good thought. I had unintentionally created a level of expectation in my own mind that these positive mind states were not just attainable, they could be permanent. And so when they weren’t there, I suffered. My craving for “feeling good” was really the crux of my undoing.
This inverted my understanding of happiness so much so that one night I actually woke up in a cold sweat. I was genuinely worried that if I followed the teachings, when I left I would no longer be able to enjoy myself anymore. After all, how could there be anything wrong with holding on to or trying to conjure “feeling good”?
The next morning I went to my teacher and explained that I refused to follow the teachings anymore because I refused to stop enjoying pleasant experiences. I then told him (embarrassingly) that I was petrified of losing that which made me feel best: the love for my girlfriend. I declared that sadly, I would have to leave the retreat as I was not prepared to forget this…
Also on The Big Smoke
…He laughed hysterically.
There’s something both terrifying and relieving about a monk laughing at you, particularly after you think you have come to them with your largest and most genuine concern.
So it was with a laugh and kind eyes that he explained to the translator that I should not be worried: I would not be enlightened by the time the ten days finished. Hence, I did not have to fear to transcend the grip of human emotion. I would still feel love. He chuckled again as the translator explained this part. He then proceeded to give me a piece of advice which changed the way I now look at the world:
If you spend your life constantly avoiding pain and searching for bliss, you have not understood what it is about.
I have had invaluable experiences with psychologists and learned innumerable things from them. However, this made me reflect upon our entire mental health model. When someone is feeling depressed or sad or anxious, our emphasis is immediately focused upon how we can get them feeling good. Rarely if ever is there a step taken to tell them that it’s actually okay to feel that way. Not only is it okay, it’s completely normal. Obviously, there are cases where someone needs to be physically pulled, often with medication, from the depths of their mental state. This is different. But far too often, it is the reaction to the headspace and the judgement of it which generates the suffering.
What the monk said made complete sense, but I was still – perhaps even more so at this point – confronted with my problem: how do I enjoy good emotions or good feelings if I am not craving or clinging to them? He smiled and, within the simplicity that only a Buddhist metaphor can possess, explained: good sensations or emotions should be experienced like a delicious mouthful of food – when it’s in your mouth you enjoy it for all it’s worth, but when it’s gone, it’s gone, there’s no point trying to bring it back.
Like Batman and the Joker, sadness and happiness are intrinsically linked: one draws meaning from the other – to be fair, hardly a new concept. In fact, today I would say that people are far better at confronting and exposing their emotional baggage than ever before. But given that we are now aware of its presence, are we now not avoiding it? Trying to keep it at bay? Clinging to the good times when it’s not present?
Despite what we may be led to believe these days, happiness is not “feeling good”. Happiness is knowing that when you are feeling good, it is going to end. Ironically, it might even be said that the pursuit of happiness is the cause of all our misery.