At some point in life, you’ll probably come to the inevitable conclusion that your life-long pursuit of happiness is pretty much a waste of time.
There’s no happiness out there. At least not lasting happiness.
Human beings are in large part just bundles of assorted desires, likes and dislikes. As long as our basic survival needs are met, we spend inordinate amounts of time chasing after the objects of our desires; the things we want; the things we think will make us happy.
These objects of happiness are wide and varied, ranging from our notion of the perfect romantic relationship, our dream job, a BMW, a holiday in the Maldives, or wanting to win the lottery.
Certainly, if and when we actually acquire any of these objects of our desires, we’re guaranteed of a certain degree of happiness. We’ve achieved one of our dreams, and it feels good! But this feeling of happiness never sustains itself indefinitely, or even necessarily for very long.
In our dogged pursuit of our dreams, we failed to realise that everything in life has a downside as well as an upside.
As our nagging sense of dissatisfaction again rears its ugly head, we figure it maybe wasn’t quite what we were after…and so the search and chase begins again. We’re back to running on the hamster wheel of what in the East is called samsara; driven by a basic sense of unsatisfactoriness and lack, motivated by an endless array of tangled desires and compulsions.
The problem is quite simple.
Happiness isn’t to be found out there.
Happiness doesn’t exist in things.
It’s not to be found in other people, in situations, or in large quantities of bank notes. If happiness did come from things, then the same things would make everyone happy, but this is clearly not the case. An adrenalin junkie teenager might have the time of his life abseiling from Mount Everest. His elderly grandmother however derives her joy from sitting in an armchair knitting. Abseiling would certainly not make granny happy; and a pair of knitting needles would hardly be the teenager’s idea of a good time.
Happiness is independent of objects. We confuse our happiness with objects because when we acquire or attain them, we feel a sense of satisfaction and relief. This isn’t so much because of the objects themselves (because, let’s face it, we might become bored of it in a week’s time, or it may even begin to cause dissatisfaction; think of the morning after a night of overindulgence). ‘Things’ seem to bring happiness because once we acquire the object, there’s a release of tension. The energy that went into wanting, desiring and craving that object has receded and we experience our natural wellbeing.
This is a revolutionary understanding. Happiness and wellbeing are natural to us. We were born OK, we’ve always been OK and we always will be OK. We came into this world in a state of harmony and balance. Long before we internalised the notion that we were a limited little ego encased in a mound of flesh, we were radiant expressions of our essential nature: open-hearted, fresh, inquisitive, spontaneous, free, and innately joyful. As long as our basic needs were met, we had no need to chase after stuff in order to make ourselves feel happy. We just were happy — no effort needed. Every situation was new and fresh to us, filled with wonder and opportunities to play and laugh.
As we grow up, we lose touch with our innate self; that fresh, free, and spontaneous expression of pure consciousness.
We come to believe that we’re not all right as we are; that we’re somehow inadequate and lacking. We begin crafting a social self — the mask we present to the world in the hope we can favourably manipulate others and the environment around us.
Having trained ourselves to curtail and repress our natural impulses, we lose touch with our essential self and lose ourselves in a largely conceptual representation of ourselves, others and the world around us.
We buy into the materialistic, consumer-driven ethos of our culture; a social conditioning that begins at a very young age. We actually believe that we need certain things (sweet, lovely, expen$ive things!) in order to be happy. So we begin chasing after that cool new toy, that iPad, boyfriend/girlfriend, promotion, car, yacht! The more of those things we have, the better, because we can’t be complete without them.
Because we’re now operating on the unspoken assumption that we are somehow lacking, inadequate and incomplete, we also feel the need to have other people like and validate us in order to feel good. As a result, most of our behaviour is now directed in a way that will hopefully elicit favourable responses from other people.
This is clearly not authentic living.
It never leads to lasting happiness, because even when we get the things we want, the nature of life is constant flux. So the thing that brings us joy today (“I’ve finally married the man/woman of my dreams!”) will often bring misery tomorrow (“I can’t wait to sign those divorce papers!”). Sometimes temporary happiness is worse than no happiness, because the suffering that comes when the object of our happiness turns sour can be truly soul-crushing, particularly where there’s been a significant emotional investment.
So what’s the solution?
I believe we have two options. We can either fully accept that we’re on a hamster wheel, chasing after things that may bring us temporary satisfaction, but which will ultimately leave us still yearning for happiness elsewhere.
Or we can take a step back and reclaim that natural, spontaneous joy we had as young children. We can begin to see through the conditioning we’ve acquired over the years: the notions that we aren’t complete and whole in ourselves; that who we are somehow isn’t enough and that we need external props in order to be happy.
We can realise that happiness is not something we have to chase after or add to ourselves. It is the essence of who we are. It was something we were born with and something that, beneath the turbulent agitations of the grasping mind, is STILL THERE.
We waste so much time and energy pursuing things that we think will ‘make’ us happy. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have goals, desires and ambitions. By all means have and pursue such things! But here’s a suggestion: first allow yourself to access that innate, natural happiness that lies at the core of your being.
Peel back the layers of mental conditioning and anything that you’ve internalised that tells you you’re not already all right as you are. Get back in touch with your essential nature. Hang out as much as you can in this simple, natural sense of wellbeing and allow it to infuse you. And then do the things that you want — not to bring you happiness, but simply as an expression of your existing happiness. Do what you want not to make you happy, but because you are happy doing it.
I know this sounds simple, but for a lot of us it may be an immense challenge, particularly if we’ve deeply internalised a lot of harmful conditioning. It might be that we’ve almost completely buried all trace of our essential self beneath the battlements of a heavily fortified social self.
The stressful, disconnected, dysfunctional society we’re a part of does not make the reclaiming of our essential nature a particularly easy task. Sometimes what’s called for is an extreme discontinuity; a resolute STOPPING. That’s probably why our greatest traumas in life; a bereavement, loss of a job or significant ill health often present a tremendous opportunity for breaking free of our conditioned mindsets. It’s as though life forcibly provides a CTRL+ALT+DEL reset. That’s certainly what happened when I ended up with years of chronic health problems. In some ways, it was the best thing that ever happened to me, because it brought me back to who and what I truly am.
A sense of happiness, peace and wellbeing does not come from what you do, what you achieve, acquire or chase after. It doesn’t come from situations, from crumpled little bank notes, or from other people.
It comes from YOU — from your essential nature.
If you are unaware of this, then chasing after the things of this world will bring only temporary satisfaction for the reasons discussed above. I consider myself extremely lucky that I’ve figured this out at a relatively early stage of my life. Some people don’t manage to grasp this until they’re lying on their deathbeds, and even then a lot of people still probably don’t get it.
My best advice to self and others? Strip away the layers of conditioning and limiting beliefs that serve as a barrier between you and your essential nature; the essential nature that shone so brightly when you were a young child, before it became obscured by the mask of the social self. Instead of doing things in order to ‘make’ yourself happy, get back in touch with your innate happiness and then do what you want because you’re happy!
Let life be a dance of joy; the joy that flows from being in touch with your own essential nature.