Fixing our requirements for happiness helps us avoid two classic traps.
We have requirements for happiness – or “RFH” – in all parts of life, ranging from our finances, careers, and relationships to … well, having just one more glass of wine, or maybe getting that new iPhone. (Is there a new iPhone right now? There must be, there’s always a new iPhone.) And then there are those other little areas where we have lots of requirements, like health, comfort, safety, and security. Do any of these resonate?
Requirements for happiness are about as sure as death and taxes. But if we can sidestep two big traps, we can turn them to our advantage.
We fall in the first trap when we send our RFH outward. If we have an RFH for how another person must feel or act, our well-being is in their hands. If our RFH is that a particular situation must go as we wish, our good humor teeters upon external causes and effects (some of which we can’t even see). And that RFH for having a desired thing? How many times have we seen that happiness fade away after we get the thing?
Avoiding this trap doesn’t mean denying that we care, not making a reasonable effort for optimal conditions, or not getting a new smartphone…
… it simply means that we don’t submit our equanimity to the whims of unstable circumstances.
And this leads us right to the second trap: not realizing that all of these requirements (commonly known as “attachments” in Buddhism) aren’t actually about the objects, people, or situations themselves. They’re about how we think we’ll feel if we have them just the way we want them. And how do we think we’ll feel? Wait for it …
So the real requirement for happiness is … happiness? Now we’re starting to see the real flaw here …
Let’s short-circuit this catch-22.
There are different kinds of happiness, but the one we’re examining here has two important characteristics. First: it’s is a process, not a destination. Like anything else based on cause and effect, it arises, changes, and passes. And second: it’s a by-product. Happiness arises as a result of doing things other than trying to be happy.
In my experience, the fastest way to feel unhappy is to try to achieve – and hold on to – happiness.
“Am I happy now? How about now? Now?” 🙄Just like the examples of external requirements above, if our RFH says that we must feel a certain way internally, we attempt to balance our well-being on inconstant states (in this case, the feelings themselves) where our direct control is limited.
In other words, we’re still submitting our equanimity to the whims of unstable circumstances; they’re just in a different place. And by trying to enforce stability on that place – which our mind likes to think it CAN – we unwittingly cause more chaos.
When our requirement for happiness is to feel happy, we’ve fallen into trap number two. (Or, more accurately, we’ve stepped in number two. 💩)
Ironically, every requirement for happiness creates the conditions for the exact opposite of its supposed purpose. Every RFH we have gives us another reason to decide that we are not happy.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t set goals, strive for self-improvement, and feel the pride of accomplishment? Of course not. That’s the process of living and growing; mindfulness practice itself is the honing of skills to build a more solid happiness. We see what happens when we decide that an outcome or feeling beyond our complete control must meet our requirement in order for us to “be happy,” and we fix the REAL problem with that system.
The actual sources of our unhappiness – not what we think are the sources – are often hiding in plain sight.
Mindfulness and insight meditation are the most powerful tools I’ve found for spotting, managing, and releasing these unskillful beasts. Why? Because we create a space where we don’t NEED requirements for happiness. Not only is it a freakin’ relief, it also allows for the clear seeing that flushes out our camouflaged agents of misery.
This is step one in fixing our requirements for happiness so they’re more effective and sustainable. And when we look back to see how we had been trying to create happiness using the mindset of “the beatings shall continue until morale improves,” it can be hard not to laugh a little.
But it’s ok if you don’t. It’s not required.