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The Social Benefit of Unhappiness

February 23, 2012

In the last post, we contemplated the question “Do you want to be happy?”

I received a number of helpful  comments on this post (in the form of responses to this blog and also  in personal conversations.)  These comments revealed aspects of the question that invited further investigation. That’s great! The great benefit of a blog is that it  opens up all sorts of avenues of discussion that deepen our understanding. I hope that this dialog will continue to deepen my understanding of the the issues that Lama Tenpa and I are trying to present.

Justin Peterson, in a conversation with me,  brought up an  issue that bears on the question “Do you want to be happy?” He noted that sometimes it seems easier to connect with friends by talking about unhappiness rather than by talking about happiness.  Suppose, he suggested,  a friend calls up and says “How are you doing?” and you say “I’m really great.  Things are fantastic!”  It’s likely that your friend will move on to the next topic. But if you reply, “Oh things are really bad,” then it’s likely that your friend will offer sympathy and ask you what’s wrong.

When our friends give us attention and sympathy  we experience their loving kindness, and feel connected to them. Loving kindness and social connectedness are two powerful conditions for happiness.  But in order to feel that attention and sympathy, we may develop a self-defeating  habit: constantly rehearsing and elaborating our sadness in order to enjoy the sympathy of others  and feel the happiness of that social connection. Over time, this habit may become a burden to ourselves and others: our constant tales of woe might no longer gain sympathy, and we may be compelled to increase the drama of our suffering in an attempt to feel the happiness of connection with others. This is the classic cycle of addiction.

When we’re sad, we might also feel sympathy for ourselves and comfort ourselves. This self-sympathy feels good: we experience the warmth of our own loving kindness. And just as we might develop the strategy of rehearsing and increasing our sadness in order to feel the warmth of the loving-kindness of others, we can also develop the habit of rehearsing and increasing our sadness in order to feel the warmth of our own loving-kindness.  I know this from experience, because I have developed a very strong internal character that I call Poor Me.  I have petted and caressed and fed Poor Me for a long time, and he’s become rather a tyrant. Poor Me likes to have other Poor Me’s around so he doesn’t feel so lonely. Poor Me endlessly gossips and complains, because it reassures him that he can connect to others by describing his own irritation. Sometimes, when Poor Me sees that other people are happy, he becomes frightened and angry: he’s afraid that he’ll be all alone in his unhappiness.  So he might try to “help” those happy people by puncturing their happiness and pointing out to them the various ways in which they are really sad and irritated.

Poor Me has become addicted to feeling sad in order to achieve happiness! He has developed a self-defeating strategy which leads him further and further from what he’s seeking. In the language of Buddhism, relying on that kind of self-defeating strategy is called confusion or ignorance.  The cycle that we experience as a result of that kind of strategy — working harder and harder and finding ourselves more and more unhappy — is called samsara. Buddhism aims at breaking those pernicious habitual cycles and freeing us to become happy.

We take on these self-defeating strategies not because we wish to be defeated, but because on some level — even if only unconsciously — we believe that those strategies are helpful to us. There is some measure of loving kindness towards ourselves in our efforts to be of help to ourselves, even though that loving kindness is misled by ignorance. So if we decide that we want to try and change our misguided patterns of thought and action, it’s helpful to remember our underlying loving kindness and to nurture it.  Otherwise, we can attack ourselves with a sense of “should” — another self-defeating strategy! (See “Do You Want To Be Happy?” for more on the discomfort that “should” creates.   Tharpa Thaye’s comment on that post describes how we  can come to believe that  the feeling of shame — the feeling that results from a self-attack — must somehow indicate that we are bettering ourselves.)

It’s also helpful to realize that many of our unhelpful strategies are supported by those around us. It can be difficult to change your habits if your community encourages you to maintain those habits. (I discovered this when I decided to try to curtail my habit of gossiping. It turns out that gossip made up a big chunk of my conversational repertoire, and I became something of a dud in conversation for a while. Come to think of it, I’m probably still a dud, but my friends have gotten used to it, and conversation flows more naturally now.) Because social connectedness is important to us, our community can have a great influence for better or worse. For this reason, Buddhism offers a lot of teachings on community, or sangha.

Healthy interpersonal relationships that result from loving kindness and compassion can be a source of happiness. What are the other sources of happiness? Which is the most important source?  Would you like to guess? Stay tuned for the next exciting installment of the Bad Lama’s Guide to Meditation.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Kiefer permalink
    February 24, 2012 2:08 am

    Hi. I never really understood people’s obsession with wanting to be happy. I really don’t get this whole happiness head trip. Anger, fear, sadness, happiness, elation, ecstasy, whatever, it’s a rainbow of emotion out there. When I was younger I spent a lot of time seriously depressed and people would occasionally ask me “Are you happy?” And it was like the question hadn’t even occured to me. Because I wasn’t so in love with the idea of being happy. I wasn’t happy, but… so what? I was… get ready… dramatic drumroll… SOMETHING ELSE. And I wasn’t playing some kind of Poor Me routine to illicit sympathy from myself or others. I don’t put a lot of value on sympathy either, it doesn’t make me “happy” to pity myself and be “depressed.” I’m just not that concerned with Happy, it isn’t a more or less interesting emotion than Passion, or Elation, or Sadness or Whatever.
    Life is going to be miserable, sad, hard AND happy and wonderful, all these things mixed up together. Striving for this one emotion above the others bores me. I just don’t care. So sue me.

    Smiles and laughter,


    I forgot to mention also that it was a very thoughtful blog, and I enjoyed it. It obviously spoke to me because of what I said. I totally see what you’re saying. It’s very interesting subject matter.

    • February 26, 2012 5:05 am

      What a great comment, Paul! I feel your energy and passion in your writing. I feel that the energy in your response comes from your interest in experiencing your full emotional spectrum, and your strong resistance when asked to limit your emotional experience (maybe even falsify it?) in order to conform to the expectations of others. Vive la resistance!

      Your comment raises the question “What do we really mean by happiness, anyway?” Is “happiness” a small part of the emotional spectrum or can it include many emotional tones? If our idea of happiness can’t encompass pain, boredom, anger, fear etc, then happiness disappears when we experience any of those emotions. I don’t think that that limited version of happiness is the happiness that Buddhism is aiming at. (Although the limited version is what is commonly understood by the term.) Instead, there seems to be a larger version of happiness that’s much more inclusive of, as you put it, “a rainbow of emotion.” This happiness has the ability to encompass many emotional tones — perhaps it’s something along the lines of contentment or satisfaction. But it’s not a blase approach to experience, it is intensely engaged and present. (I loved that you talked about “interesting emotion” — I think that describes well the engaged aspect of happiness.) This larger happiness also has to do with freedom and lack of striving — not freedom from unpleasant things but freedom and ease in the experience of pleasant or unpleasant.

      This is not a version of happiness that many of us are familiar with. One of my relatives asked me, “How would we recognize happiness?” Maybe it’s easier to recognize this larger happiness by getting familiar with the ways that we we make ourselves unhappy. For that reason, many Buddhist teachings start with the reality of suffering. As you know, when we meditate, we get familiar with how we create endless dissatisfaction in our lives. When we stop creating that dissatisfaction, we might get a better idea about what happiness might really be.

      • Paul Kiefer permalink
        February 28, 2012 2:27 am

        oh wow thanks Tom. I knew this was going to lead to dissecting the word Happiness, and then, it’s meaning deepens, right?
        Yeah you totally understand what I was saying. But I think you articulated it better. Plus, there’s a serious possibility you’re smarter than me. A slim possibility. I guess?
        I was sort of putting this box around happiness so that I could judge it and stand outside it’s influence. Or something like that. I’m not sure but thanks for letting me “vent” it’s very kind of you.

      • Paul Kiefer permalink
        February 28, 2012 2:28 am

        That was a great post.
        I can’t wait to read the book

  2. April 10, 2012 5:14 pm

    Memory is “failure based”. This shows up in life practically when time seems to slow down for a bored person and speed up for an engaged and excited person.

    According to Daniel Stern, a developmental psychologist, children only develop a sense of self (core self) when their caretakers ineffectively attune to their feelings and needs. He stresses that while caregivers should work to match the feelings of the infant (affect attunement) that mis-attunement fundamentally begins the individuation process for the child. Incongruence between the inner world and outer world become the thread that weaves our sense of self.

    My favorite extrapolation for failure-based memory: we call everything before 10,000 BCE “pre-history”… because humanity lived more attuned with the environment we don’t remember it well enough to call history.

    My acting teacher in California use to say an actor can only play one emotion at a time. Accordingly there is no way to be both happy and sad at the same time. But aren’t we talking about energy? And happiness and sadness are just mental labels/names for our reference. Would the label of “heart of genuine sadness” account for an energy that is both happy and sad?

    • April 15, 2012 9:13 pm

      Part of what you’re pointing out here is the issue of separation and non-separation (or dualism and non-dualism if you prefer). If a child feels no separation from the parent, then there’s no dissonance and no noticing of (or imputation of) boundaries.

      Buddhism teaches that all boundaries are imputations. There isn’t a firm boundary between happy and sad, between parent and child, between human and environment. The appearance of boundary may be useful, (in the case of the child it allows for individuation) but it is also an illusion.

  3. November 8, 2012 5:13 pm

    I really love that you bring up how prevalent this is in Western society, and I feel like it is something that often goes unnoticed. Since you do bring up addiction, I think it might be interesting to expand that conversation a bit more. What exactly is the cycle? How does “addiction” to drama reflect the cycle of other kinds of addictions? I’d definitely would love to hear more about that. I think the characterization of “Poor Me” is great! For the book, I think since it seems to be a pattern of bringing up “self-defeating strategies,” if there are, say, five or more by the time all the content is said and done, it might be cool to have an appendix that summarizes these self-defeating strategies and suggestion on how to implement NEW strategies.

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