How to be uncomfortably happy

What is happiness to you? How does it look? If you write a list of the things that make you happy, what words do you use?

Your answers probably don’t involve pain, discomfort or failure. They should.

The problem with happiness is that we think it’s an all or nothing game. Charlotte Joko Beck, one of the early Zen teachers in America, says that we’re all worshipping the ‘god of no discomfort and no unpleasantness’. She’s pointing to the fact that, by default, we try to avoid negativity at all costs. When left on auto-pilot, I will naturally steer clear of conflict or awkward conversations for fear of the friction they create. I’ll try to avoid failure not through hard work, but by not taking risks. When negative thoughts come into my mind, I become obsessed with trying to outmanoeuvre them.

This is a game you can never win.

You can’t win because disappointment, failure and sadness will always visit us. Just as death is the natural conclusion of birth, any form of happiness necessitates some degree of grief. Life is a game of balance: when one side rises, the other will eventually follow. And yet, many of us invest so much energy in trying to tip the scales permanently in one direction.

And the biggest sucker punch? Our brains are designed this way. Thousands of years ago, we needed much sharper instincts to help us avoid the kind of stuff that would mean certain doom. Times have changed. The basics of our programming have not.

Social media has exaggerated this tendency to magnify positivity and avoid negativity. As we scroll through endless feeds of beaches, brunch and beautiful sunsets, we’re left wondering why our lives lack the perfection our friends seem to attain online. And so we find ourselves struggling with an old challenge in a new context.

Luckily, we have a choice in how we define happiness. And many people before us have thought about what a better definition might be.

The idea is simple: any pain or misfortune you encounter in life is an opportunity to become happier. The difference between pain that cripples and pain that promotes growth is how we choose to think about it. The investor Ray Dalio is well known for his philosophy of “pain plus reflection equals progress”. Dalio’s insight is that reflection on the adverse components of our life can enable growth and momentum rather than stagnation. When we develop this point of view, pain is no longer a hurdle to overcome in the pursuit of happiness. Instead, it becomes an essential part of a fulfilling life.

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