We hear a lot of advice about how to be happy.
In fact, I just wrote two blog posts (How to Be Happier in 5 Minutes and Warning: You Are Missing Out) highlighting what I think makes people happier. We hear people telling us to follow our passions and create our dream lives.
On this rare overcast day in Denver, I’m thinking about the pitfalls of pursuing happiness, and the value of dropping it altogether.
On days like this, when I’m low energy and less than cheery, I question whether it’s okay to feel this way. I’m not only feeling sad and low, but I can get frustrated at myself for feeling it.
First and Second Darts
Buddhist teachers talk about this as first and second darts. The first dart refers to the inevitable strife that we encounter in our lives. For instance, many people in Denver lost windshields and bedroom windows last week during a violent hailstorm. My friend’s brother is dying, and she is scared, pissed and sad. These bumps in the road, ranging from inconvenient to tragic, are inevitable parts of our lives.
The second dart comes from the story we overlay over these experiences, that they should not be happening to us. It’s the belief that when difficulty strikes, something is wrong. I met up with friends this morning full of angst, and then criticized myself for not showing up differently. I wished I could be happier to see them, ready with a smile and eager to collaborate on our shared project. Instead, I was distracted by a conversation from the previous day, which I’d wanted to go differently, and by the dreams I subsequently marinated in throughout the night. I fessed up immediately to my friends about how I was feeling, and then was able to accept it and move along on our project. Once I let go of the need to be different, I found my mood lifting naturally as I engaged these relationships and our shared vision.
The first darts were my difficult conversation and uneasy dreams. These were unpleasant experiences that left me with a feeling I would not have chosen. The second dart showed up as a self-aggressive reaction – wanting my mood to be different, getting frustrated with myself. I wanted to be happier than I was.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that pain is inevitable and suffering is optional. Pain is the first dart – the inescapable unpleasantries woven throughout our lives. The second darts cause our real suffering. We want to make our experience different from what it is, or make ourselves different from how we actually are.
How to Give Up
Psychologists have found unsettling trends in the effects of pursuing happiness, specifically that it can negatively impact our well-being. In Randy J. Paterson’s book, How to Be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, he talks about our pursuit of happiness and how it can snowball into an accumulation of disappointment and self-blame. He claims that “misery is the new happiness.” Chasing good feelings all the time can lead to classifying normal human emotions – such as sadness and anxiety, disappointment, despair, even bereavement – as pathology. And when we aren’t content all the time, we may start to feel inadequate.
There is a middle ground: acceptance. Staying open to our myriad experiences can help us recognize that we are always passing through emotional states, and that none of them last. Some we may like more than others, but we can’t hang onto any one state more than we can push away another. Welcoming in sadness or fear can actually reduce their intensity, and even though they’re uncomfortable, we see over time that we survive these spells. While certain habits can help us feel better, we can also rest knowing that our emotional experiences are temporary, and the lows don’t have to be such a big deal.