Only in the midst of suffering and dissatisfaction, we can find joy and happiness
‘We can never be perfectly happy, since suffering is unavoidable too”We are living in a materialistic and consumerist world, where the yardstick of success is wealth, material goods, status, and to avail avenues of pleasure and entertainment. There is a mad race to seek and accumulate those goods. All around us, we see extremely “successful” people leading highly stressful and unhappy lives. They have all the money and comforts but hardly any time to enjoy life. No doubt, with success, comes wealth, material goods, and comforts, status in society, and more powers to enjoy. That’s the reason, we strive to be successful in life, in whatever way we may define success.
Since early childhood, we were told (implicitly or explicitly) by our parents that it is success that really matters in life. We were led to believe that without success, life is purposeless and that with it comes everything that is said to be good and meaningful for a long rewarding life.
Why there are misconceptions about success, happiness, and pleasure? The reason lies in the fact that in our contemporary world, there is too much emphasis given to wealth, status, power, and material goods. While pursuing success, we generally overlook those things that give us genuine happiness, so, we naturally end up becoming more unhappy. If we chase material goods with the hope that we will eventually achieve happiness, we are grossly mistaken.
We, humans, continue to seek many things, like plenty of money, professional success, true romantic love, a nice bungalow, and so on with the hope that once they have, they will become happy in the future. Ironically, they are wrong. The material goods alone can’t help us in becoming happy. It’s in fact the other way round. We may even end up becoming more unsatisfactory and getting frustrated.
Now coming back to happiness, it’s a feeling of contentment. It comes when we feel satisfied, safe, grateful, and eager to experience more of life. Happiness is of two kinds. First, we may feel conditionally happy on a day-to-day basis, and secondly, there is long-term contentment that runs deeper. We feel good, elevated, joyful, and generous when we are happy. No doubt, all of the ingredients that lead to happiness lie within our minds. Nothing from the outside world is required.
Happiness is a very fine mix of well-being, positivity, and overall satisfaction with life. It’s far more than the absence of unhappiness. It’s neither easy to define what it is nor prescribe how to achieve it. Happiness is in fact the outcome of many internal factors, including the delicate balance of neurochemicals that are secreted in our brain. It is also a product of our thoughts, and the feelings that are generated. If thoughts are toxic, fearful, angry, or even vaguely negative, we can’t feel happy. Mental peace is a prerequisite to experiencing pleasant feelings.
On the other hand, suffering in life is universal. We can’t escape it despite the best of our efforts and intention. More than 2500 years back, Lord Buddha declared, “I teach suffering, its origin, cessation, and path. That’s all I teach”. The Four Noble Truths contain the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. The First Noble Truth, which is deceptively simple, yet very profound and lucid. It’s usually translated as “All life involves suffering “, or “All life is unsatisfactory “. The original word used by the Buddha was Dukkha. It includes suffering, mental, physical, and emotional pain, mental stress, feeling of satisfactoriness, anxiety, frustration, depression, boredom, loneliness, anger, and so on.
Can we imagine living without experiencing these negative feelings for a long time? Many unfortunate people keep on living in a state of acute suffering like the mother losing her child, a person born with some physical deformity, someone is suffering from a terminal illness, a person getting bankrupt, etc. These are the cases of extreme pain and suffering. Pain and suffering are an integral part of life. Our life oscillates between two extremes, from acute suffering to mild satisfactoriness.
There are various shades and forms of suffering in our life. Even if we are very rich, powerful, and high statured, we are not free from suffering. Our inherent nature is like that. To escape from suffering we go for pleasurable goods and experiences, but we end up becoming more frustrated, unsatisfactory, and discontented. We have been designed to suffer. Suffering is an inevitable consequence of our living. The kind of life we lead and the way our mind works, suffering becomes unavoidable. Our mind is highly fragile, sensitive, and vulnerable. There is also a negativity bias. Even a small distressing incident can create a negative stream of thoughts, which can ruin our peaceful days. If we try to suppress those negative thoughts then the same set of thoughts may recur more often.
If suffering is inescapable because of the mind’s inherent nature and the world becoming more and more materialistic, then how can we be perfectly happy and contended. Is it theoretically possible to achieve sustained happiness in life? Or it’s the combination of suffering and happiness, that’s an achievable target for us. To elaborate on this issue, it’s necessary to refer to ‘Brave New World’, a social science fiction novel by English writer Aldous Huxley. This novel was published in 1932. Later on, Huxley followed this book with a reassessment in essay form, ‘Brave New World Revisited (1958)’.
In this novel, a futuristic society is visualized in which people were given a drug named ‘Soma’ to numb their emotions and feelings. They were only provided with pleasurable things so that they can lead a perfectly ‘happy life’. Their life was devoid of all the emotions like pain, sorrow, suffering, distress, trust, love, and so on. They were in fact not aware of those emotions because from an early age they were conditioned to lead that type of life. The entire society was sterilized, there was no disease, no pain, and distress, no old age, no anxiety or mental illness. There was a strict ban on books. They couldn’t access any harmful reading material. So those people were manipulated and conditioned to lead a life devoid of all the emotions and feelings. People had therefore no reason to revolt against the state.
Later on, one outsider, born outside that civilization, John the Savage comes into this society. To cut the story short, John recognizes the true beauty of human emotions. So, he rejects the emotionless and sterilized essence of society. Finally, John becomes the tragic hero of Brave New World, whose idealism eventually leads to his demise. The Brave New world covers many themes. This novel has been interpreted in many different ways. One theme is very clear that the use of ‘Some’ to make sure happiness is the only feeling the people have is not the solution. The essence of life comes with a varied mix of emotions. In fact, we have been evolved through the process and development of emotions.
In this way, two things are clear. First, suffering is widespread and we can’t escape, only the degree of suffering varies in our life. Second, we can never be perfectly happy also because of the mind’s inherent nature. So, our life will always experience a mix of suffering and happiness. In fact, our lives oscillate between 2 extremes, severe pain, and suffering on one side and joy, satisfaction, and contentment on another extreme. Our experiences of life are therefore all mixed up. Even during the day, sometimes we feel joyful and satisfied, while at other moments we are dissatisfied, distressed, or sad. At times during the days of acute suffering, we may have moments of joy. Therefore, we shouldn’t expect ourselves to be happy all the time. Our practice goal should be to minimize the duration of suffering and increase the moments of joy and happiness in our life.
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