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Never in history have so many believed that they should be happy. Our post-Enlightenment Western era sees happiness as a matter of individual choice and effort. When you’re not happy, you just have to work harder to collect more – more wealth, more beauty, more achievement, even more spirituality. Compare our view with that of ancient Greece, where well-being was seen as the result of the good fortune and auspicious fortune of the gods. or the Aristotelian schools in which well-being consisted chiefly of virtue; or the Eastern traditions, in which well-being consists in overcoming the illusion of a separate self, and we see that our current belief in happiness as the ultimate human well-being is inconsistent with earlier formulations. The question arises: Is our current Western understanding and pursuit of happiness harmful?
Our cultural spirit of personal responsibility, coupled with the assumption that happiness should be the natural human condition, has devastating consequences: many people fear painful feelings such as illness. Brené Brown, Ph.D., a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, believes that one of the main reasons we are the most drug, obese, and depressed cohort in history , is that we addictive behaviors to numb what we believe to be “wrong”. While clinical depression is a serious condition that deserves appropriate treatment, far too many Americans spend their lives relentlessly seeking a better life free of the discomfort haunted by insidious dissatisfaction and a desire for something they cannot quite fully name (Weil, 2011)). Pain, which has been repeated over the centuries in Greek, Christian, and Eastern philosophy, is understood as an inevitable part of life and growth.
Consider the concept of Greek tragedy, a form of entertainment specifically designed to bring people together around human suffering to produce group catharsis. Perhaps the first step towards a thriving society is to give up our short-sighted pursuit of happiness in order to celebrate the inevitable unpredictability of human life and the full spectrum of human emotions.
As a meditation teacher, the most important aspect of my job is teaching individuals how to use kindness to deal with their painful emotions and inadequacies rather than trying to “fix” or get rid of them. The relief students experience in learning to feel lonely and fearful is completely normal. The result of a brain designed for survival, not happiness, changes life. Freed from the shame of believing that they are somehow uniquely flawed, they can then move from isolation to connection and from self-judgment to self-acceptance.
An emotional orientation of acceptance
Spiritual and contemplative concepts such as “letting go” and “acceptance” highlight an important corrective to the Western understanding of wellbeing. While many spiritual traditions celebrate indulging in something greater than self, the Buddhist perspective is particularly well suited to Western psychology because of the predominant focus on the nature of the mind and self. Over the past two decades, the exchange of ideas between Buddhism, psychology, and neuroscience has broadened our understanding of wellbeing and led to new methods of treating mental disorders, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and maximizing the human potential for self-regulation and positivity.
A primary teaching in Buddhism is that while pain is inevitable (loved ones get sick, we age, and mortality is our ultimate goal), suffering is optional. Suffering comes from opposing aspects of our lives and ourselves that are beyond our control. Chris Germer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Arlington, Massachusetts, demonstrates the point with a simple equation: suffering = pain x resistance. An understanding of human happiness that includes the language of acceptance is probably the most powerful resource for dealing with the aspects of our lives and ourselves that we cannot change. To use the metaphor of a garden, we need to fertilize the soil with an emotional acceptance orientation that can preserve our basic human inadequacy and imperfection before we can thrive.
While compassion for the self has been discussed in Eastern traditions for centuries, the concept is new in Western psychology. Kristin Neff, Ph.D., professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas at Austin, recently defined the construct of self-compassion as “being open to and moved by one’s suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness Understanding yourself, taking a non-judgmental attitude towards inadequacies and mistakes, and realizing your experience is part of the shared human experience. “What is exciting is that a growing body of research shows that self-compassion greatly increases psychological well-being, resilience and motivation. In addition, developing a more compassionate relational attitude towards the self has a huge impact on the brain and nervous system to improve self-regulation. Seemingly counter-intuitive, regarding our human imperfections with warmth and acceptance as opposed to criticism and control, our ability to approach the life we desire and thrive actually improves.
As anxiety and depression continue to rise in the western world, it is time to seriously examine our expectation of a pain-free, perfect life in the pursuit of happiness. Over 40 years ago, the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow stated: “The main cause of many mental illnesses is fear of oneself – one’s own emotions, impulses, memories, abilities and possibilities.” He promoted self-understanding as a means of cultivating what he called “B-Perception,” a non-judgmental, forgiving, loving awareness of our whole being (Maslow, 1968). Today the concept of self-compassion reflects Maslow’s reputation. The time is now Instead of striving for the illusory state of happiness, we should choose to become honest about what it really means to be human. come together in dialogue about the inevitable darkness; and turn to us and each other with friendly understanding. Instead of striving for happiness, we cultivate a mindful presence that may contain the entirety of our experience, joys and sorrows, beauty and terror.
This piece was originally written for Sonima by Kayleigh Pleas.
This story was originally published on Sonima.com. If you liked this story, check out the other articles:
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