Browsing the archives for the suffering tag.
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If You Want to Be Happier, You Have to Care Less

States of mind

Think of the most serene, compassionate, happy-looking person in the world. What does that person look like? A movie star, someone who’s climbed to the top of the fame ladder? I’m guessing not. A powerful politician? Absolutely not. A toddler with adoring parents? Maybe, but check again in five minutes and the answer is probably no. A bride on her wedding day? Not so serene, usually. An incredibly successful entrepreneur? Smug, maybe: I’m not so sure about serene or compassionate.

How about the Dalai Lama–or virtually any other highly accomplished Buddhist monk?

Serene? Check. Compassionate? Double check. Happy looking? Those lines didn’t come from years of yelling at the cat to get off the furniture, for damn sure. Check out the images that come up if we search Google for pictures of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama: except for a couple of expressions of attentive interest, it’s a complete smilefest. (Scroll down to the bottom to see the screen shot: I didn’t want to put the picture at the top and prime you to choose the answer I’d thought of.)

Does happiness work the same way for everyone?
But then again, what does that prove? This is the Dalai Lama, for the love of Pete. It’s his job to be serene and compassionate. That guy doesn’t have to argue on the phone with his wireless provider. That guy doesn’t have a neighbor who mows the lawn every Sunday morning at 6:15. That guy has never been jilted by someone he was pity-dating (to the best of my knowledge).

Although, OK, he did have his country stolen from him, is exposed to the profound suffering of millions daily, and is never allowed to have sex at all, ever. Still, his approach to happiness probably has to be a lot different than our approach to happiness, right?

Happiness in four bullet points
I was thinking about this just a short while ago, after a conversation with my wireless provider (I bet you thought that was a hypothetical example, huh?) in which I was informed that while yes, the equipment I just purchased from them does not work, and yes, it’s their fault and yes, I’ll have to exchange it, and yes, the whole reason I had to buy it in the first place is that their coverage at my home is unusably bad, that no, they would not give me a new one before they receive the old one: in the mean time I would just have to suffer without it.

There’s the key word: “suffer.” The central lesson Buddhism has for us about happiness (even for people who, like me, don’t consider themselves Buddhists) is contained in something called “The Four Noble Truths.” The millennia-old Four Noble Truths are surprisingly in tune with psychological research from the past couple of decades, and they go a little something like this:

  1. Suffering exists
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

For the moment, let’s not worry about the Eightfold Path: that’s a discussion for another day, although the short version of it is what my girlfriend reminds me of (patiently) time and time again: the more that the things you do are in harmony with each other and with you, the happier you’ll be.

How to suffer: a practical example
The thing I want to latch onto here is the whole suffering and attachment deal. Let’s use the example of the wireless company: Why is it frustrating and annoying to me that they aren’t helping solve my problem now, when I want it solved–frustrating enough that I literally went directly from their store to the bakery across the way with the idea of possibly having a really unhealthy lunch revolving around pastry? (Note: I did get a handle on things after a minute or two and went on to have a lunch of roasted chicken, black beans, and salad.)

The reason it was annoying is that I cared. My self-talk was subtly but inescapably guiding me toward misery by dwelling on what the wireless company–OK, I’ll go ahead and say that it’s AT&T–“should” do, what I “deserved” to have, how “unfair” it was that the device I’d pay for didn’t work, and how I “needed” an immediate solution. Note the words in quotes: they’re all indicators (in this case) of broken ideas, our primary mechanism for making ourselves miserable and the focus of a number of highly successful cognitive therapies (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“).

As long as I cared whether or not AT&T did what I wanted, I would be unhappy. The moment I ceased to care–became unattached from–that concern, it would no longer bother me.

How not to suffer
Again I’m not talking theoretically: I let that concern go, and I immediately felt better. Of course, the problem with bad habits–even when they’re very general habits like making ourselves unhappy when things don’t go our way–is that we’ve grown specialized neural connections to keep them going, so releasing that concern generally just means that I’ll stop worrying about it right at that moment, but that it will come back as soon as I’m reminded of the original problem at a time when I’m not concentrating on being unattached.

Fortunately, I then have the option of not caring again. It turns into a long-term battle: my habits kick in to make me act in ways that will cause me to be unhappy, then I exert conscious effort to free myself and become happy again … and round and round we go. Yet this cycle weakens the habit over time, because the more we think or act a certain way, the more robust our mental wiring for that approach becomes, while the more disruptive we are to a behavior, the more that behavior weakens. This is how habits are made and destroyed.

When next we talk about this …
There’s a lot more to talk about here, especially the idea that caring less is a good thing (which on a gut level has always given me trouble) and about when caring more is important (because there are times when caring is indispensable)–but I’ll leave those subjects for other posts, so that this one can remain a fairly readable length. I had wanted to cram more into this post, but with a little effort, I’ve stopped caring whether I do that or not.

Silo image by Timothy K Hamilton


Finding Comfort in Uncomfortable Situations

Handling negative emotions

The other day I was in a dentist’s chair for two hours. There was drilling, grinding, polishing, glueing, grafting, washing, suctioning, and so on, and it became clear to me pretty early on that either I would find a way to relax or I’d be very uncomfortable for quite some time.

Fortunately, I realized that I had several tools from my research that could be helpful to me, and using them, I found I was able to be very comfortable the whole time. Some of the thanks goes to my dentist and dental assistant for their professionalism, but all the professionalism in the world doesn’t make it comfortable to have a needle pushed into the roof of your mouth–whereas other strategies can make this a bearable experience.

So here are the tools I used. These strategies are useful whenever it’s necessary to just wait through something that may be uncomfortable–not just appointments with the dentist–for instance plane takeoffs if you aren’t comfortable flying, or an overcrowded commute on a bus or subway.

1. Directing thoughts
Realistically, we don’t have many choices by the time we get to the dentist’s chair. Sure, if something seems to be going wrong that we think the dentist might be missing (an unusual situation), there might be a reason to raise one hand and make noises of distress, but that happens almost automatically, and other than that, we generally need to just sit still and open wide. Some uncomfortable situations require us to think and react, and those are not the kinds of situations I’m addressing in today’s article.

Knowing that there are no choices to be made, it becomes clear that “Oh no, this is going to hurt!” or “I can’t stand that drilling noise in my skull!” or any other negative idea is not going to be helpful, because negative thoughts are only helpful as indicators to help us change our behavior.

So it helps us to redirect our thoughts, in a way similar to how we might redirect a child who’s getting worked up about something that isn’t really causing problems. The basic technique amounts to “OK, but look at that over there!” We don’t have to squelch our negative thoughts, but we can acknowledge them without letting them drag us in. “Oh no, this is going to hurt!” can be followed up with “Yes, but then again, I seem to have survived everything that’s ever hurt in the past” and then focusing on something more interesting and pleasant, like plans for the weekend, a favorite book or movie, or whatever kind of thing keeps you interested.

2. Simple meditation
It’s easy to tense up in uncomfortable situations, but often a simple breath meditation can offer relief. To do this, don’t change your breathing itself, but instead focus your awareness lightly on breathing in, that moment of change when you go from inhaling to exhaling, breathing out, and the other moment of change when you go back to inhaling. It’s difficult to keep this up for a long time–though practice helps–but even with multiple interruptions or distractions can make the rest of the world recede while we become wrapped up in this serene activity.

3. Pay more attention, not less
As strange as it seems, often much of our suffering when we experience pain is fear of the very pain we’re experiencing, or of its consequences. After all, pain itself, like negative emotions, is just a signal that something might be going wrong. Pain is something that has developed because it’s useful to our survival: it helps us get clear of things before they cause too much damage. Unfortunately, sometimes we experience pain when things are actually fine, and at that point the more primitive parts of our brain panic. The more we try not to feel pain, the scarier it becomes.

So one useful approach when feeling pain is to really pay attention to it rather than mentally running away. What does it actually feel like? The process becomes a kind of meditation focused on the pain itself. This doesn’t make the pain go away, but surprisingly, it can relieve a lot of the suffering associated with it.

4. Keep the end in mind
It sometimes helps, when going through something difficult, to remember why you’re doing it. This is only useful if there’s something good waiting for you as a result, but this is often the case. Focusing on the relief a medical procedure will provide, on the friends or family waiting at the other end of a turbulent plane ride, or on the house you’ll eventually get to live in once you’ve filled out the unending paperwork for the loan can make an uncomfortable situation much more liveable by taking you out and placing you in a happier future.

The photo (which is not of me) is by The Doctr

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