[NOTE: This is the first in a potential series of Blog Posts analyzing concepts of Happiness, Sadness, Pleasure, Pain, Angst , Emancipation, and Human Spiritual/Psychological Well-being. Incidentally, the second post in the series can be found HERE, while the third one can be found HERE.]
In this post, I will be discussing some Buddhist Philosophy, and my personalized extensions to the same. This is a good place to start, since the Buddha made some fundamental and profound breakthroughs to the notions of suffering (and by extension happiness), the nature of consciousness, the nature of the human condition, and the path to peace and liberation – 2500 years back.
So to start off, there’s a quote which says:
“The world is a sizzling pan where the ignorant cook their vain desires”
I would in fact go so far as to argue that vain desires are all there’s to living life. So we are all ignorant in some sense. Unless we happen to be Siddhartha Gautama. For instance, if you give up a materialist life, then carnal/sexual desires remain, the desire to earn respect among your peers and seek acknowledgement from your colleagues remains, etc. In fact the conscious intent to give up materialism and seek spirituality/asceticism also arises from a desire.
From what I understand of the Buddha’s teachings, he rejected blind asceticism (i.e. blindly giving up everything just for the sake of giving up). He said desires are natural and required, stressing however, that it must be in harmony with our needs and other desires. And that it must be the right kind of desire. Buddhist Philosophy is often incorrectly assumed to preach blind asceticism, when it in reality rejects both blind materialism and blind asceticism, which it considers polar extremes. It in fact advocates a sense of balance, priority and moral conviction to shape our conscious thinking into the right thought, and from thereon to the right speech, and the right action.
Nonetheless, the Buddha did realize the central problem of human existence – which, stated as a banal platitude, is that there can be no gain without pain, no joy without grief, no structure without tethering, and no purpose without attachment. And while every person needs to feel tethered or attached to real-world objects (materials, activities, pursuits, and yes most importantly people), this tethering brings about not only a tangible reason for a person to thrive and live, shaping their life with purpose, preventing them from getting sucked into a vacuum of existential rumination, but this same tethering has the capacity to produce unimaginable physical and emotional distress. And therein lies the problem – that attachment and tethering, while extraordinarily beneficial to a person’s motivational framework, can and inevitably does eventually take that person through a failure of expectations, disappointment, and dejection.
Paraphrasing in another way as a corollary, I boiled it down to the following severely reductive crux:
(1) Attachment and Expectation (to self, to things, to people) eventually leads to disappointment and hence dissatisfaction or angst.
(2) Both Happiness (a state of contentment) and Depression (a state of restless dissatisfaction) – can be caused by Detachment.
(3) Only difference is – When Detachment is involuntary (i.e. forced upon you), then it leads to depression. If on the other hand, Detachment is voluntary (i.e. you choose consciously to let go), then you are liberated from angst/restlessness, and you will experience soothing contentment.
Of course, there’s a flipside to this. If someone like Pete Sampras adopts voluntary detachment, then he wouldn’t have been motivated to play an arduous 5 set match with several Dueces, Tie-Breakers and long volleys against competitive adversaries. It is because he had invested a tremendous amount of physical, emotional and spiritual energy in his work, and because he had trained himself to be constantly dissatisfied to enable him to keep pushing his limit, that he was able to play and win those arduous competitive tournaments. If, of course, one has the ambitions/aspirations and expectations of a Pete Sampras without having the skill/ability and agility/temperament (physical, emotional, spiritual), then clearly there would be a tremendous mismatch between expectation/attachment and actual performance/reward – which then would lead to disappointment and restless angst.
So on the flipside, progress of self in practical goals requires a slightly dissatisfied mind in the very least. The trick is to keep this dissatisfaction to a base minimum amount – by crucially calibrating the mismatch between aspirations/expectation and ability to live upto those expectations, or the ability to procure commensurate rewards through appropriate performance. So as a further corollary/addendum, we can make the following observation:
Happiness can therefore be described as a state resulting out of either –
(A) Meeting a level of expectations/attachment with a proportionate performance/reward.
(B) If you fail to do (A), then by decreasing the level of expectation/attachment (ie choosing a decreased form of engagement, or choosing increased form of detachment voluntarily) – to the point that the mismatch is reduced or eliminated.
If you fail to do both (A) & (B) listed above, then you will experience the restlessness/angst which affects us all. The way I see it, either live up to expectations or reduce them to the level you can deliver/obtain. A misplaced/arrogant sense of entitlement or a demanding attitude is actually two shades worse than just lofty expectations.
Another key point here is to understand that the expectations can only be from oneself and regarding one’s own thoughts, actions, performance, conduct, and behavior. There’s a certain minimal level of expectation which one can place on others, but it would be highly unwise and foolish to base your peace of mind on external factors, especially from other people. While objects don’t judge or disappoint, people do that and much more. So it is best to expect not more than the minimum from others, and instead base your contentment and happiness, solely on your own shoulders and your own abilities. As a result, another key conclusion here is that – The human journey is therefore necessarily a lonely one, that loneliness is an intrinsic and ingrained part of the human condition, and that to restlessly thrash against this condition (whether by yearning unhealthily for external validation, or yearning unhealthily for frivolous pursuits, or seeking unhealthy amounts of material distractions) would be to run away with anxiety and panic from this somber fact of human existence. Accept that you are alone. Accept that so is everybody else. Accept life is intrinsically a lonely and solipsistic journey, one which must be taken alone – from birth to death, save for a few fleeting companions, showing up every now and then.
Choosing detachment voluntarily (or a reduced form of engagement/attachment) – i.e. (B) – is exceptionally difficult, especially concerning matters of personal identity, personal pride and personal ambition. But after 26 years on this planet, and having had my share of infrequent robust successes, frequent moderate goof-ups and the odd catastrophe, I am slowly coming around to this idea of choosing detachment voluntarily. And for those struggling with a sense of heavy angst, I advocate doing exactly the same.
Finally, another appendix point that can be made in this regard, is that choosing detachment voluntarily (or a reduced form of attachment) in one sphere doesn’t necessarily preclude choosing an increased form of attachment (or a reduced form of detachment) in another sphere. Put simply, if one had very high expectations/attachments from one’s intellectual capabilities and if one fails to reap sufficient rewards from it, consistently not finding satisfaction or success through it, then besides decreasing the amount of attachment/pride one has over their intellect, one can and perhaps must also potentially engage oneself much more say in the social sphere. And vice versa – i.e. a person aspiring/expecting a lot in the social sphere and meeting not much success, should not only decrease one’s expectations from the social domain, but also increase their focus on certain intellectual or analytically pursuits, or endeavors in other domains.
Thus, as a corollary/addendum the following points (C) & (D) can be added to the above points summarizing a state of contentment:
(C) If you choose (B) in one sphere of engagement, then holistically you can and must choose choose a larger form of engagement in another sphere, with the hope of fulfilling (A) in that sphere.
(D) Cycle through a permutation and combination of (A), (B) & (C), throughout your life with a view to balancing various threads of your life, achieving a degree of contentment, while keeping yourself motivated enough by careful calibration of the discrepancy between expectations and performance/reward to a crucial baseline minimum.
In closing, to paraphrase Buddhist philosophy again, the concept of “Happiness” doesn’t exist in itself in isolation. There is in fact in reality only Dukkha (which is commonly translated as suffering, but which actually means something deeper and sinister – i.e. a gnawing feeling of dissatisfaction and angst – like an irritating itch on the body you are unable to locate). What we all mean by “Happiness” is not some independent concept existing in the real world, but basically a relief from this itch/angst. Thus consciously chasing happiness proves elusive. And thus Buddhist philosophy is fully and justifiably concerned with a discussion of Dukkha – all the four noble truths are about Dukkha – about its nature/definition, its origins, its cessation, and the path to its cessation.
- “Happiness Doesn’t Exist” – Blog Post on Raptitude
- “Four Noble Truths” – Wikipedia Page
- “Four Noble Truths – Twelve Insights” – Wikipedia Page
- “Four Noble Truths – Sixteen Characteristics” – Wikipedia Page
- “Noble Eightfold Path” – Wikipedia Page