The Trap of Pursuing Well-Being… And the Billion-Dollar Industry Behind It
Gelong Thubten on Escaping "the Cultural Disease of Our Times"
The well-being industry is worth trillions of dollars, and perhaps its growth is driven by people’s sense of dissatisfaction. Of course it is important to take care of ourselves, but in striving to feel good we usually find that when we want something, the wanting leads us to want more. Consequently, our quest for greater well-being seems to be endless, leaving us feeling disappointed and incomplete. To better understand this, we can explore the psychology of happiness.
The search for happiness underpins much of what we do. We assume that if we “get what we want,” then we’ll be happy, but we often end up feeling as if something is missing. Maybe we don’t really know what we want. We might get what we think we want, only to then find ourselves wanting something else, and so we start chasing again. Perhaps the problem lies in that constant search for happiness—the searching becomes a habit, leading to more searching. We are always looking for the next thing, and so nothing is ever good enough for us.
We usually assume that happiness comes to us from the world around us, but through such thinking we lose our power. Happiness is a state of mind. If we can transform our thoughts, we might discover that happiness was already there within us. Happiness comes when we stop searching for it. We are so busy with what’s going on outside that we forget to look within: everything we want is already here, waiting to be discovered when we let go of the searching and relax into the present moment. We also tend to think that our stress and misery are caused by the people and events in our lives. If, however, we learn to change how we react, we could be happy even in challenging situations. The mind is everything, full of potential for training and transformation.
Once we realize that we cannot find lasting happiness through relying on outer things, we might turn to meditation, but now a new problem can arise. Many people today are drawn to meditation practice for enhancing their own well-being: we would all like to achieve “inner happiness,” but again we are back to the search. The very attempt to seek a happy mind becomes endless, with chasing the happiness leading to more chasing. At the same time, our efforts to get rid of stress can seem to create even more stress. Meditation itself now becomes a new kind of hamster wheel upon which we endlessly run—running but not moving.
In seeking happiness from the things around us, we are identifying with a lack of happiness—through telling ourselves that we want happiness, we are telling ourselves we don’t have it. That sense of “not having” pervades our minds, leaving us feeling we don’t have enough. The same problem arises in the quest for “inner” happiness. Meditating for well-being tells us we don’t have that wellbeing; we are persuading ourselves that we don’t feel good enough, thus perpetuating a state of deficiency. On the other side of things, in trying to get rid of our stress, the pushing away of discomfort leads to more of a habit of pushing away—and so there will always be more stress to get away from, with nowhere to hide.
This can leave us feeling frustrated with our meditation—it doesn’t seem to be giving us what we want, and so we think we should try something else. Here we encounter the cultural disease of our times—the quest for the “feel-good factor,” with the constant shopping around. We are hunting for a good feeling.
I joined a monastery to feel better; I was deeply unhappy and physically unwell. Stress had brought me to my knees, and I needed a serious intervention. I threw myself into the world of meditation desperate to find happiness. I wanted a fully immersive experience, and in those early times as a monk I would meditate in quite an intense manner many times per day, but there was something needy and addicted in how I was going about it. I was searching for a pleasant sensation—I would sit down to meditate and wait for a good feeling to arise. After some months I was dismayed to find I was feeling worse, with growing depression and a sense of despair. I asked my teacher, Akong Rinpoche, about this, and he told me I was a “junkie.”
He explained that I was meditating as though taking drugs, trying to get high. The more I was trying to feel good, the more I would encounter disappointment, brought on through the grasping and expectation: the more one wants, the more one wants. With this attitude, whatever happens is not satisfying: the grasping mind has already jumped over it, looking for the next thing. It’s a continual hunger with the mind racing ahead. Talking this through with my teacher helped me drop some of the struggle and learn to meditate with less expectation and in a less self-focused manner. After that, things stopped being so depressing.
Our lives today are ruled by quick fixes and the search for a buzz. We like to have our senses ramped up, and so happiness becomes very much about a fleeting sensation. There is a tendency to also bring that mindset to our meditation practice: we want to get a hit from it. We think that to know something is working, it needs to make us feel good.
The food we eat tends to be full of stimulants; we like sugar, caffeine and the instant, unhealthy gratification of fast food. The media we consume is fast-moving and invasive, our minds constantly distracted. We are programmed to feel ungrateful for what we have—greed keeps the wheels of commerce in motion. Chasing the high has spiraled in our culture; if our meditation becomes part of that race, we are back to square one in terms of feeling dissatisfied. Feeling good can be a by-product of the practice, but if we are grabbing on to that, it won’t work. This is the crux of the happiness question: happiness will come when we stop searching for it and instead relax into the present moment, letting go of expectation and fear.
The key point is to meditate with less of an agenda: we don’t need to look for instant results. Meditation will not necessarily always make us feel good—it is not a spa treatment. It’s about engaging in a powerful process of mental transformation, a journey to genuine and sustainable happiness. It is helpful to integrate compassion into our practice, understanding that meditation is also a training in self-acceptance and forgiving others.
To conclude, let’s ask ourselves again what we think happiness is: is it a quick buzz, a sugar-rush high, or is it something deeper—a state of letting go, freedom and compassion? We cannot be happy when our approach to happiness is all about chasing something. The root of the human problem is the desire for happiness. If we can let go of that searching, we might discover we are already happier than we thought.
A Monk’s Guide to Happiness by Gelong Thubten is available via St. Martin’s.