Why We Suffer, and How to Be Happy (or at least not miserable)
Why do we suffer? All human beings struggle in some way, some more than others. What is the cause of this suffering? For the past 20 years I have been trying to gain some insights into this question through my training in meditation, psychotherapy, and neuroscience. Recently, I completed an intensive three-day silent meditation retreat and here are the 5 reasons I (re)discovered about why we suffer and how to be happy or at least not miserable. (Followed by reflections on this recent experience and how it’s all connected.)
1. THE UNCONSCIOUS MIND
It is estimated that 95% of what happens in our mind is unconscious. Furthermore, experts estimate that our basic operating principles (understanding of the world, core beliefs about ourselves) are formed by the time we are 5 years old. So, you’ve basically got a 5-year-old in charge of the shop. How does this affect us and our adult suffering?
If unresolved, the impact of attachment failures from these early days show up throughout our lives and can manifest as chronically feeling alone in life, limiting beliefs about ourselves, feeling that the world is a negative place and more.
These early days are also when our egos got conditioned to believe we only have worth around doing rather than being; we are hurt if/when our potential is not honored; we develop a fear of insignificance, maybe feeling we have to be productive every minute of the day; we develop feelings of entitlement thinking something we have to do is below us; or we just want to relax and be taken care of, but actually have responsibilities that require us to get off our butts.
So this is our basic operating system, and while you are reading this, it is running you without your awareness or consent.
2. THE SELF-CONSCIOUS MIND
We yearn to be unique (especially Americans), to stand out in a crowd, and we are deeply social beings. These traits help us develop ourselves, connect us to community, and help us empathize with what others are experiencing. They also drive the need we have for meaning and validation, and the aspirations we have that do not always get fulfilled. We have in-groups and out-groups, and form beliefs and prejudices based on identity and group affiliation. In contrast, animals have one goal: survival, to find food and water and make it through the day. Unlike animals, we as humans care (too much) what others think of us and spend considerable time and energy trying to be accepted. This need to be special, for everything to be meaningful, the desire to achieve and to be accepted is an extremely tall order and sets us up for inevitable failure, rejection, and pain.
3. OUR BIOLOGY
Our nervous systems have remained relatively unchanged through the past few thousands of years of evolution. We have a hard-wired stress response system which prepares us to fight, flee, or freeze. Brain scans show that the same regions of the brain are activated when we experience social pain (e.g. failure, rejection, embarrassment, etc.) as when we experience physical pain. We all have a threshold which psychologists call your “window of tolerance” which, once exceeded, activates our stress response and causes our amygdala to take over (the part of the brain that controls emotions). Rational thought goes out the window. And because of our ability as humans to think, we can and do ruminate and hold onto stressful events as opposed to just letting them go like animals in the wild (read Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers for a deep dive into this). We worry about things as trivial as if our behinds look fat in our jeans to as existential as our deaths. This constant worry and chronic stress can shrink our window of tolerance; that causes us to be in an almost constant state of stress response which, over time, has serious emotional and physical consequences.
4. THE HEDONISTIC TREADMILL
We get bored and antsy easily, and are attracted to new shiny things. When we get these new things, they are satisfying for a while... but then the excitement wears off and dissatisfaction follows, so we chase the next new thing. Psychologist Barry Schwartz calls this unending process the Hedonistic Treadmill. The mind, untamed, will jump from thought to thought, like a monkey swinging from branch to branch. We do not by nature have a quiet and peaceful mind. This is what psychologists call Associative Thought and meditators call “monkey mind”. One theory proposed by the psychologist Wilfred Bion is that as our brains evolved people started to have thoughts but had no way to structure or organize them. Our capacity to think actually came about as a way to handle these thoughts so we wouldn’t go crazy. We just can’t help the roller coaster of satisfaction to suffering.
5. OUR NEGATIVITY HARDWIRING
To add to all the above, humans have what neuroscientists have dubbed a Negativity Bias. Our brains are actually wired to focus more on bad things than on good things. Again, this is a relic of our survival imperative where it was more important for us to see the snake in the woods than the beautiful flower.
So, why do we suffer?
On some level, all people are destined to suffer at the hands of these five conditions. As one scientist summed it up for me, “Evolution doesn’t care if we are happy.” But we care. We all would like to live a happy and harmonious life.
So now that we know why we suffer, how do we get out of it?
THE ANSWER: Meditation
Ten years ago, I would have been sheepish to recommend meditation to people even though it’s bestowed enormous benefits to me (I have been meditating for 20 years, studied at monasteries in Vietnam and have completed two 10-day and two 3-day silent retreats). Now, with the advent of brain imaging and advancements in neuroscience, plus a growing cultural acceptance of mindfulness, there is so much good evidence that meditation works, I recommend it more adamantly.
Studies on meditation show improvements in focus, stress management and resilience, and immune functioning. One study of an 8-week meditation program showed an improved reaction to flu shot immunity. Another study of long time meditators showed systematic differences in brain function; gamma oscillations - associated with problem solving and insights - were much longer than in ordinary people. Brains of people given two weeks of compassion training showed increased activation in reward and empathy centers of the brain as well as more altruistic behavior compared to those who got two weeks of Cognitive Behavior therapy. Reports show that as little as 8 minutes of meditation can produce measurable change in brain while 20 minutes is thought to be optimal period.
Recently, I spent three days at a silent retreat practicing the Vipassana technique of meditation.
This means I handed over my phone, wallet, and keys; did not eat dinner, did not talk to or look anyone in the eyes; and sat in an uncomfortable position for ten hours a day. Vipassana, which means “to see things as they really are,” is the method of meditation that, as the story goes, was practiced by the Buddha himself to come out of suffering and attain enlightenment. According to this technique there are four parts of the mind:
Observing mind that tells us something has happened which we know through our senses.
Perceiving mind which evaluates what has happened based on our past experiences.
Sensations are generated on the body out of conscious awareness. Experiences that are perceived as good get pleasant sensations and those that are bad get unpleasant sensations.
Reacting mind which causes us to crave the pleasant sensations (we like it and want more) and respond with aversion (we want it to stop) to unpleasant sensations. When something happens it triggers past experience, we react from those experiences and this part of our mind becomes dominant.
When we strengthen the focus of our mind through a technique known as Anapana (mindfulness of breathing) meditation we become aware of the sensations on our bodies. The practice of Vipassana is to observe these sensations on the body and not to react to them. By observing and not reacting, we see that all sensations, good or bad, share the same characteristic of impermanence. In other words sooner or later they go away. At the root of what causes us to suffer is attachment from our Reacting mind (craving to good and aversion to bad) to feelings that are coming and going.
So, the practice is to not be attached, to not constantly react, and to let go of old stuff that keeps coming up. You are retraining your mind to not only strengthen the observing function, but to also bring it into balance with the reacting function.
To be honest, these days of 10-hour Vipassana practice is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sitting and meditating for that many hours for so many days in a row is really tough. But the results are remarkable. When I re-entered the world, the same stresses and craziness were waiting for me, but they didn’t have the same charge. This experience has stuck with me, even weeks after being on the retreat. Instead those stressors roll off my shoulders and don’t get to me the way they did before. I can appreciate experiences, good and bad, in a way I didn’t before.
So when you get right down to it, all our suffering comes from the way our minds work. Without re-conditioning our minds in some way (I offer meditation as the most proven and effective way here), we will continue to suffer. But if we do the work of getting to know our mind, how it works, and retraining it, we can find some peace, happiness, and freedom from the struggle.
How to get started
You can learn more about Vipassana meditation or find a course near you here:
You can also try some lower touch, beginner friendly apps such as Breathe or Headspace.
And if meditation is just not for you, here are some other ways to ease the suffering:
Go to therapy - Release those internalized objects and recondition yourself to value your being over your doing
Cultivate friendships - Develop and prioritize relationships, be kind and generous to others as you would yourself.
Nurture your body - Move your body, exercise, don’t sit all day. Eat healthy foods.
Recondition your mind - Do the 3 Good Things Activity, try hypnosis.
Broaden your threshold for stress - Do practices that strengthen the relaxation response of your parasympathetic nervous system (yoga is great for this, 4-7-8 Breathing)
Back to basics - Don’t be as focused on material things to bring you joy. Find it in the simple things, like taking a walk, talking to a friend, drinking a cup of tea.