Archive for Presence

The dangers of a happiness obsession

Western society places enormous emphasis on the pursuit of happiness. Many Americans believe it a constitutional right (although, actually, happiness is only mentioned in the Declaration of Independence). The Dalai Lama opens The Art of Happiness by saying that “the very motion of our life is towards happiness”, echoing the words of Aristotle over 2000 years before him. Clearly this pursuit forms a major part of our lives, but is it possible to place too much emphasis on happiness? Is there a danger of an obsession?

This question is addressed in The Psychology of Economic Decisions, and some potential drawbacks are given. One drawback is that we may be so busy evaluating our happiness level that we do not simply enjoy the moment. If we recall some of our happiest moments in life, what were we thinking during them? Most likely, we were not thinking about happiness…we were simply happy. Maybe a split-second later we thought about happiness, but not during that actual moment. Generally speaking, we find activities more enjoyable when we are free from self-evaluation and instead are engaging fully in the activity. An obsession with achieving happiness can interfere with this process.

Another danger is that focusing on this goal of total happiness can make us less satisfied with our current situation. We can be left thinking about how life could be even better. In other words, an obsession with happiness can make us over-sensitive to every moment when we are not happy, which undermines our very goal. Perhaps it is better to simply stop thinking about it?

This is not all to say that we should not pursue happiness. However, we must be careful how we go about it. If we approach this pursuit from the premise that there is something “wrong” with our current situation then we may be shooting ourselves in the foot. After all, as mentioned here, gratitude is an important component of a happy life. Furthermore, the tendency to over-think things is an ever-present danger. Perhaps it is time to stop thinking about happiness, and actually just be happy.

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Mindfulness: Becoming aware of our thoughts

Whatever we do in life, our mind is commenting. Whoever we meet, our mind passes judgement. There is an incessant stream of thoughts that is forever swirling in our heads, and they set the tone for whatever we do. There is nothing wrong with having these thoughts, but we must be aware of their existence. Otherwise, we become caught up in them, and they take control.

Suppose we are lying in bed in an empty house. The thought occurs that an intruder may enter, or is perhaps already inside. We wonder if the neighbours would hear our screams for help, but decide they are too far away. Before we know it, we are completely petrified and unable to sleep. This is an example of unattended thoughts having dramatic and irrational influences on our emotional state. A similar mechanism can cause unjustified anger, irritation, or depression.

The discursive mind is wonderful at bringing in data and bombarding us with suggestions. Access to this information is useful only if our intellect can discriminate between thoughts that are helpful and thoughts that are not. This is where we must practise mindfulness. With mindfulness, we are aware of our thoughts, and able to discriminate. In its absence, we simply believe whatever comes in, and problems can arise.

Mindfulness is an awareness that we are thinking. It provides that extra distance that stops us from confusing ourselves with our thoughts. We do not block out our thoughts, but we gain the ability to choose which thoughts to pay attention to. If we cut our finger, instead of letting the pain completely fill our mind, we retain the awareness that it is just a sensation. We observe this sensation, but from a certain distance. We may even use the experience of pain to remind us to be mindful.

Of course, we must be careful not to overdo this. There is a difference between awareness of our thoughts and actually saying “I’m aware of my thoughts”. The latter is just another thought. Therefore, we must practise mindfulness not as another thought to think, but rather as a resolve to stay in the present moment – a resolve to be aware and to impartially observe.

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