Why Pursuing Happiness Doesn’t Work

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It’s ironic, isn’t it? The more obsessed we are with “just being happy” the more miserable we become. There is a good reason for that.

The seeds of our unhappiness are built into the very structure of seeking happiness.

Who is doing the seeking? The Self, the “I,” the Ego. The self is seeking something outside itself to feel better. Perfectly understandable. However the more pre-occupied the self becomes with getting that, the more self-absorbed it becomes. And self-absorption is one of the most direct paths to misery and unhappiness available to us.

The relentless focus on how I feel, how I am doing, what I am getting, what’s in it for me, how I stack up, how I compare with others, how successful I am is guaranteed to make “I” unhappy.

The reason is that it is self-perpetuating and never-ending. The more focused on itself the self becomes the more aware of dissatisfaction it becomes.

This is because at the core of “the self” is dissatisfaction.

As long as your awareness is pointed at it, more disatisfaction will be revealed. There is quite literally no “enough” for the self.

The very nature of the self is to keep striving. That is part of the self survival mechanism. It is chronically dissatisfied which keeps it seeking. Survival of the human organism (and all living organisms) is predicated on just this pursuit (i.e. seeking food, sex, etc. and avoiding things that hurt, that are painful and that can kill it).

Think about it. If you are perfectly content and at peace you would sit where you are and do absolutely nothing. There would be nothing to do. No reason to move. No reason to do anything.

Eventually your body would die of thirst or starvation. The body needs constant inputs and adjustments for it to survive (food, water, oxygen, the right temperature and environmental conditions, etc.). And the self is what organizes all the different sensory signals from the body and translates them into a felt experience or sense of dis-satisfaction. That felt experience of dissatisfaction is what motivates us to take action.

But there is a beautiful golden lining to this predicament.

I used to work at a healing arts retreat center in the Peruvian Amazon. We worked very hard for weeks at a time, operating on little sleep and almost no personal time. Our needs were always subsidiary to the needs of our guests coming to us for help. The work was hard, intense, and exhausting on physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual levels.

Yet I regularly experienced what I would call a “vacation from the self:” the sense of peace and release that comes when you completely stop worrying about what you want and need and focus 100% on something or someone outside yourself.

For that brief period, all of my attention, awareness, and focus, all the finely honed skills of my mind and body, were focused on how to help others. And not only was it a break from my self, but it engaged me in work that felt deeply meaningful to me. Over time, it also changed my relationship to myself and made me a less self-centered person.

Focusing on serving others can flip this endelessly dissatisfying self-absorption completely on its head. It’s like a “get out of jail free” card.

I am talking about true service here, a complete dedication to another or to helping others without regard for self (as opposed to say co-dependent gratification-seeking through others, which is fundamentally about getting one’s own needs met and is just another slippery way the self operates). The key is to focus 100% of your attention on helping others or dedicating yourself to something beyond your self.

Now of course it is possible, like everything in life, to over-do it. And some people use a focus on others in an avoidant or escapist way with self-destructive tendencies that end-up looking very similar to addiction. But in our highly individualized culture, it is much more common to be out of balance in the opposite direction, leading to a soul-crushing preoccupation with the self’s wants and needs.

This is a relatively modern phenomenon because in traditional tribal societies the focus on the self’s needs was balanced by the focus on the tribe’s and the community’s needs and goals. This is one reason why existential angst, despondency, and the kinds of depression and chronic anxiety so prevalent today are rarely found in truly traditional tribal cultures. However, the more integrated these cultures become into modern styles of living the more these problems appear.

The Self Needs a Real Job

So if you find yourself reading every book on how to be happy or the latest blog entries with titles like “10 things that happy people do differently,” stop, and realize that the very act of doing this is contributing to your unhappiness. You are literally walking in the opposite direction of where you want to go.

Instead, focus relentlessly on helping someone else or on something outside of yourself that isn’t about personal gain. Volunteer. Get involved in a political movement. Engage in service work. Help others in some way.

I have a friend who is a very gifted man with deep empathy, sensitivity and awareness. People from literally around the world would seek him out for guidance. But he was also troubled by these same gifts. His extreme sensitivity became a burden to him.

A few years ago he began cooking food at home and feeding the street kids in his neighborhood. I visited him recently, after not seeing him for several years, and frankly he never looked so good. He told me he had found true joy for the first time in his life (he’s in his late 50s) by the simple act of cooking food for these kids and feeding them every day.

I accompanied him one day and it struck me how much these street kids loved him. And these are not people that open their hearts easily. These are abused, neglected and abandoned street kids, highly vigilant and very guarded. But everybody knew him, they looked out for him, and he was basically part of their community.

Community is the natural outcome of dedicating yourself unselfishly to something beyond the self. Which is why giving is actually receiving.

And this truly is the secret to happiness.