The key to happiness is simple, but it’s not easy

Turn that frown upside down.
Turn that frown upside down.
Image: Reuters/Antonio Bronic
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In Herman Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, the title character and his friend leave home, disowning all possessions, to seek spiritual enlightenment.

They decide to live on the road, homeless, journeying away from the known towards the unknown. It’s not a life of ease, but it is one they embrace.

When they are hungry, they fast. When they are unoccupied, they meditate. When they are looking for answers, they wait. And as they move from place to place, they get more and more fixated on their goal.

Eventually, however, they separate—it occurs due to their meeting with the Buddha himself. After hearing the legends about the Enlightened One and then seeking him out, they are both impressed with his calm poise and the simple profundity of his teachings. The friend, Govinda, stays behind to become his student, while Siddhartha—although appreciating what he has learned—decides to continue on a more individualistic pursuit.

This pursuit takes him through both space and time: He settles down in a city, falls for a woman, and over the years, becomes a successful businessman. This, of course, doesn’t fulfill him either, so he leaves. His next stop, his final stop, is a small home by a river where he lives with a ferryman.

The ferryman is a simple, quiet man, but he possess an unspoken wisdom that entrances anyone who meets him. Living in his presence, after many more years of unrest and suffering from all the seeking, Siddhartha eventually, in a sudden moment, finds himself at peace.

At the end of his life, Govinda, who is still searching for enlightenment, hears about an older ferryman who people whisper has the answer. This ferryman is Siddhartha, who has now taken over from his old mentor at the river.

When Govinda tells him that he is still a seeker, his old friend—right before the book ends—shares what it is that he has learned after all these years:

“When someone seeks,” said Siddhartha, “then it easily happens that his eyes see only the thing that he seeks, and he is able to find nothing, to take in nothing because he always thinks only about the thing he is seeking, because he has one goal, because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: having a goal. But finding means: being free, being open, having no goal.”

The problematic zone of fixation

The story of Siddhartha and his friend is set in a world far different from the one we occupy. It’s a simpler world, one with fewer forces swaying minds.

Their quest, too, is not the unhealthiest one you can pursue. Aspiring towards fulfilment is, generally speaking, far better than many of the things that occupy our desires in modernity—think money, status, and pleasure.

The core problem, though, is the same. It’s the root of all self-inflicted misery.

Happiness—or more accurately, a lack of unhappiness—is a product of the relationship that exists between our subjective expectations and the objective reality. Over the long-term, a feeling of peaceful contentment comes down to the objective reality giving us more than our subjective expectations.

We all have some influence on what this reality has to offer, but ultimately, many things are out of our control. The only solution, then, is to adjust our expectations by managing our personal desires.

In some spiritual traditions, like Buddhism, the answer—broadly speaking—is to minimize, and if possible, eliminate desire. Not just the desire of vices, but also the desire that leads to the unending process of seeking that both Siddhartha and Govinda spent their lives in pursuit of.

Unfortunately, the likelihood that the average person will forgo desire and find enlightenment is a small one. That said, what anyone can learn to do—which is a healthy step in the right direction—is expand their zone of fixation.

We all have things we want, and we all have things we look to achieve. But many of these things are far more negotiable than we make them.

Sure, making more money may make your life better off, and of course, winning that prize or capturing the praise of someone you admire can be life-affirming, but if there is a world of people who can live completely in peace without these things—and there almost always is, no matter what it is you desire—the chances are that you can, too.

When we desire something, we fixate on it. We commit our time and our mental energy, and in the process, we develop a one-sided obsession that leads to misery any time reality doesn’t correspond. This is as true of the desire to be more self-confident as it is of seeking a specific pleasure.

The only way not to fall into this trap is to expand the zone of your fixation when the time arises. It’s to loosen the definition of your desires so that they can accommodate the feedback given by the objective reality. And that’s only possible if you’re willing to step back and let go.

To zoom out and adjust your subjective expectation is to be free of affliction.

Better questions, better life

One reason we fixate on things and then have a hard time letting go is because we start off on the wrong foot: We begin by asking the wrong questions.

Almost everything that motivates you to take action starts with a question, whether you realize it or not. The simple reason is that before you desire an answer, you have to first define what you are looking for.

Most things we seek come from borrowed ideas. Depending on the culture we grow up in, we are molded by socioeconomic forces that shape our mind before we are mature enough to know better. By the time we grow up, many of these ideas are so deeply embedded into us that we don’t even realize it.

The question of meaning, for example, is one such case. In the western world, we are growing increasingly secular. Religion is on the decline. You may see that as good or bad, but either way, that opens up a question: What is the meaning of life? What, in fact, is meaningful at all? Why?

In a predominantly religious environment, the answer to these questions are so obvious that even if they occupy your mind from time to time, they don’t really cause misery because your existing belief gives you an answer. In a secular environment, however, these questions lead many into a spiral of nihilism, the belief that nothing matters. This fixation, then, more often than not, causes a lot of undue pain.

Now, here is a third approach as formulated by Alan Watts:

“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance.”

By redefining the context, as shaped by the expression of the question, we completely negate a problem, which in this case is the potential pain of living in a meaningless world. As Watts implies, who are you to fixate on meaning in a world that is simply just here? A world that you don’t even understand? Maybe the frame you’re looking through is the wrong one. Maybe your brain isn’t even capable of asking the right question.

Questions create context; context defines boundaries; boundaries determine fixation; fixation, then, limits or enhances your subjective ability to live in a way that either invites or repels misery.

The solution to most problems isn’t to fight them, but to ask better questions.

The takeaway

Both Siddhartha and Govinda spent their whole lives seeking enlightenment, but it wasn’t until they simply stopped looking that they found it.

The question they had fixated on was the wrong one, and their inability to consider the possibility that they may have to rethink their initial premise forced them through a path filled with years and years of the wrong answers.

Humans are biologically programmed to desire things. It’s encoded in the survival machine that we refer to as our body. This process of desiring, however, leads to a narrow zone of fixation that stops us from experiencing reality in a way that is conducive to avoiding misery.

To fight this, we have to develop the flexibility to reshape the content of these desires as we obtain more and more information from the objective world.

We have to learn to let go of the incompatible subjective expectations that we rigidly anchor to reality so that we can recast new ones in a more suitable direction, slowly getting away from the seeking to the finding.

It takes a lot of work, and even more courage, to look at yourself and decide that maybe it’s time you saw things from a different angle, with a different question, but it’s precisely this kind of work that is rewarded.

Avoiding misery isn’t easy, but it is simple. It’s on you to take the right steps.

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This post was originally published on Medium.