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Want to Be Happy? Embrace Being Miserable

It may sound obvious, but lower your expectations.


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Carry your mental umbrella. Photo from Reuters/Eric Gaillard.

It’s good to be positive, sure. But that doesn’t mean being sunny side up all the time. Keep your frown right where it is. Let your bitch face rest. And together we’ll contemplate the hard facts of life and the tools we can use to deal with difficulty.

Americans seem to be down these days. Only one-third of Americans in a 2017 Harris Poll of 2,200 adults said they were happy. Millennials are declaring themselves the “burnout generation.” Meanwhile, “elites” are “miserable,” according to stories by Charles Duhigg in the New York Times Magazine and Derek Thompson in The Atlantic.

Duhigg argues that the source of privileged people’s unhappiness lies in overly high expectations and too little practice struggling with obstacles early on. Thompson, meanwhile, blames devotion to work—the fact that people have replaced God and family with careers and callings as the source of meaning in their lives. Because we no longer want to make “time for happiness,” he says, we are busy, confused, and sad.

Both are right, in part. Struggle helps cultivate resilience, and American “workism” is misguided. But Duhigg and Thompson also ignore a more fundamental issue. It’s clamoring for happiness that makes people miserable.

Brock Bastian, a social psychologist at the University of Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences in Australia, argues in a 2018 paper in Emotion that trying too hard to be happy yields the opposite result. People who are deeply invested in the idea of achieving happiness are more likely to obsess over failure and negative feelings. Because these are unavoidable in any life, the high expectations create more stress that leads to increased negativity. “Happiness is a good thing, but setting it up as something to be achieved tends to fail,” Bastian told Time. “Our work shows that it changes how people respond to their negative emotions and experiences, leading them to feel worse about these and to ruminate on them more.”

The fact is that you have to consider misery and discomfort in any existential calculation. These are essential elements of being—a lot of things don’t go right. Even under the best circumstances, we get hungry and tired, and need to pee. The best relationships involve pain, and the greatest jobs are also tedious. Nothing can be fun all the time, and some stuff that ends up enjoyable may seem dreadful while you’re doing it. Pretending otherwise, expecting a steady sense of pleasure and satisfaction, only compounds suffering.

The Want-Not Philosophy

Although the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the US Constitution, to act upon that right guarantees displeasure. Desire causes suffering, or so the Buddha believed. In fact, this is one of the Four Noble Truths realized by the Nepalese prince upon attaining enlightenment.

According to the First Noble Truth, suffering is inevitable. All living beings struggle their way into existence and survive with pain, physical and psychic, until they die. To escape this cycle is impossible—but if we make peace with the process, then we are also more able to appreciate the difficult adventure.

The Second Noble Truth is that suffering stems from attachment: Our desires cause us pain. Learning to want and need less can help us to minimize our suffering, according to the Buddha’s third truth.

To cultivate this skill, the fourth truth lays out the “Eightfold Path.” It consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. All of these are meant to be practiced simultaneously, not step by step, and they amount to a recipe for becoming an ethical, disciplined, and wise individual.

The path offers guidance on the elements of a principled existence, based on a cultivated perspective. But not necessarily a happy one.

Still, liberating yourself from the expectation of happiness lightens your load. It makes life a little easier when you are realistic but resolved, rather than deluded, desirous, and determined to have the impossible. By calculating discomfort and struggle into the mix, you can remain cautiously optimistic, knowing there’s surely trouble ahead, but that you will face it with grace.

“We should not be afraid of suffering. We should be afraid of only one thing, and that is not knowing how to deal with our suffering,” the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes. ”Handling our suffering is an art. If we know how to suffer, we suffer much less, and we’re no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by the suffering.”

Proper Struggle

So how do you suffer properly? You don’t have to become a Buddhist or follow the eightfold path per se. You do have to cultivate perspective.

Try to start understanding that there are no bad cuts on this porker called life, and that all the feelings are fine. Happiness is necessarily not lasting, and if you chase it, the emotion will elude you. It’s precious and momentary. That is what makes it so delightful.

As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman explains, happiness arises unexpectedly. It can’t be planned or pursued. We can only make room for it, but cannot master it. Under certain circumstances, due to some mysterious alchemy of time and space, we feel happy, briefly, but not necessarily where or when you’d most expect this emotion.

People don’t feel especially happy at family celebrations or holidays or at work or on vacations, his research has shown, though they may derive satisfaction from the story they can tell about these aspects of their lives. Instead, people feel happy when they are suddenly laughing with friends or colleagues or kids, or enjoying a moment of beauty or peace that sneaks up on them. And the active pursuit of happiness can create stress which often forecloses the possibilities of pleasure.

Beyond understanding happiness more deeply, we can train, actively cultivating perspective with practices both ancient and new. If meditating your way to the understanding that emotions are like clouds flitting across the sky of your mind isn’t your thing, for example, there’s a bot that will talk to you about feelings and train you to reframe your thinking. 

The Woebot is an app designed by Stanford psychologists, based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. This mode of treatment, CBT, calls attention to thinking patterns and teaches patients to recognize and address their negative tendencies and limiting beliefs with exercises. The bot is not trying to make you happy. Rather, it’s trying to make you reflective. For example, if you tell the Woebot you are anxious, it will ask you to consider whether there are positive aspects to feeling concerned or worriedserves some purpose you haven’t yet considered.

Because the language we use shapes our reality, CBT exercises call attention to the lexicon of our thoughts. The idea is that as ideas and feelings arise, we become more capable of appreciating their fluidity. Thoughts are not solid. They shift shapes, come and go. The practice teaches control through engaging with your thoughts and reframing them, kind of like becoming your own attorney and learning to argue points with yourself until all the angles have a certain validity, and woes seem like no big deal.

Defensive Pessimism

Over millennia, no one has avoided suffering. It’s unlikely any of us will be the exception. So the wise thing to do is to accept this sad but funny fact. The joke is on all of us and the quicker we are to see the humor in it, the better our chances of sometimes having fun.

What we really need more than positivity is objectivity. And that can be cultivated. A kind of defensive pessimism is perhaps the best approach. It’s like carrying a mental umbrella, knowing that the weather is changeable.

Know that you’ll fail, you will fall, you’ll feel pain, and be sad. You will be rejected. You will get sick. Your expectations will not be met, because reality is always more strange and complicated than imagination, which also mean something more interesting than you know could yet be on the horizon. Know, too, that even so, dull moments will abound. Yet it can always get worse, which is why it’s worth remembering that every day, at least some things have to be going okay, or else you’d already be dead.

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This post originally appeared on Quartz and was published March 1, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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