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Good News: Happiness Doesn’t Exist

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Happiness is slippery. It doesn’t like to stick around. We know we’ve had it before, but it’s gone away, and we know there are certain things we have to do to find it again. Certain ducks have to be in a row. After all, if you didn’t have to do anything to be happy, you wouldn’t do anything at all. It can’t be too hard to find. Other people seem to be finding it all right.

Yet for all our efforts, we never seem to get this happiness problem nailed down, and there’s a very good reason for that.

When we start talking about solving the problem of unhappiness, it’s hard to avoid the topic of Buddhism. I know not everyone is a fan, but they have lain some important groundwork, even for those of us who like the idea of improving our quality of life but aren’t prepared to buy the whole package, with all its baldness and orange robes. Despite its promises of peace and enlightenment, I haven’t leapt in with abandon, so don’t worry, this article doesn’t delve into pratitya-samutpadas and tathagatagarbhas. It’s about a plain-jane concept you know very well: happiness.

Buddhism developed as a response to mankind’s search for happiness. In the simplest terms, it’s not a belief system but a methodology for being happy. Yet Buddhist literature is known for focusing much more on suffering than happiness. Its curious preference for morbid subject matter has led some to describe Buddhism as preoccupied with negativity.

The reason suffering has become Buddhism’s primary focus, rather than happiness, is that happiness, as we conceive of it, doesn’t really exist — at least not in the same way suffering does. What we refer to as happiness is really just what the absence of suffering feels like.

Although it’s become the favorite term for the concept, “suffering” is really not an adequate word. The Buddhists call it dukkha. Suffering is perhaps the most common English substitution, but I’ve also seen anguish, unease, dissatisfaction, stress, discomfort, or unsatisfactoriness. None of them are quite right, and so many writings in English will use dukkha.

I avoid the casual use of Sanskrit or Pali words in my articles because I think they make a lot of readers tune out, as they sense they’re being led into an esoteric religious discussion. Books and articles about Buddhism can get pretty dry and cryptic, scaring away readers who would otherwise be fascinated by the very same concepts if they weren’t presented in such stuffy, user-unfriendly language. But for the rest of this article I’ll use dukkha, if it hasn’t scared you off yet.

“Unease” might be the best of the English translations of dukkha. The original word was meant to evoke the feeling of a potter’s wheel that would screech as it turned.

I often substitute dukkha with “suffering” but I realize that may be misleading for those not acquainted with the Buddhist meaning of that word. Before I encountered “suffering” in the Buddhist context, it meant something different to me. It meant great pain. Sobbing, aching, despair.

Suffering, from a Buddhist perspective, refers not so much to outright catastrophe as to the persistent, low-intensity feelings of dissatisfaction or yearning that human beings feel most of the time. Indeed, most of our “suffering” is extremely minor:

  • The faint hint of financial angst you get when you notice gas has gone up again
  • The tiny feeling of urgency you get when you discover you only have 19 more minutes to get ready to go, and you thought you had 30
  • The slight unease you feel when you’re opening a gift in front of the person who gave it to you, and you want to make sure you look pleased no matter what you really think of it
  • The sinking, “here we go again” feeling you get when so-and-so begins to get impatient with the waitress

This is dukkha. This is life.

Moments in which unease is not present are wonderful. There is a light, problemless, “everything in its right place” quality to them. We’ve all had these moments, and they aren’t particularly rare, but they are not your typical moment.

Often they happen when you experience something so powerful that it wrests all of your attention away from your thinking mind, such as a picturesque sunset or an incredible piece of music.

Other times, this peace blindsides you at a perfectly ordinary moment, maybe when you’re filling up a glass of water and you’re taken by a perfect, glowing triangle of sunlight on the countertop. Suddenly the mind shuts off, you can hear the delicate background noise of the kitchen and the surrounding neighborhood, and everything looks and sounds exactly as it should.

The potential for it seems to be always there.

Buddhism’s genius is that it reduces all human problems to a single one: the problem of dukkha. This is a very powerful perspective. The implication is that our ordinary state is one of peace, perfection, problemlessness, and clarity — the very things we are always ultimately seeking. Dukkha is the only thing standing between a problematic moment and a problemless one. The problem is not gas prices, or your bank balance, or your love handles. Without dukkha, none of them would be problems. The price of fuel would strike you as perfectly appropriate, as would your net worth and your physique.

The Buddha developed a method for transcending dukkha, but many other approaches have been discovered since by sages, psychologists, seekers and average joes. They all amount to overcoming your attachments in the moment.

Happiness is…

…what’s left when you take away unhappiness.

Since the only problem we ever have is the presence of unease in our moments — and not the absence of anything — happiness itself doesn’t really exist. It’s just what we call moments in which we don’t experience dukkha. And that means what we refer to as “happiness” is always there behind the current moment’s unease; ultimately, it is always accessible.

I find it’s more empowering to think of happiness this way — as the absence of unease, and nothing else — and here’s why:

We tend to think of happiness as something “out there,” waiting just beyond some future achievement or change in circumstances. This makes our happiness contingent on factors we cannot directly control. If we think of unhappiness (or unease) as a function of how we are relating to the present moment — whatever it contains — then we always have an opportunity to improve the quality of our moment. This way power over our quality of life resides with ourselves, and not with luck, status or other externals.

Happiness is too easily confused with gratification. Gratification is simply getting what you currently want. It provides a fleeting cessation of unease, which makes it feel awesome, like an end in itself. It is such an intense release that it feels as if the problem has been conquered, when really it’s only been chased away for a short while. As a strategy for happiness, gratification is a poor one for three reasons:

1) You can’t always get what you want

2) Depending on getting what you want in order to be happy increases your attachment to getting what you want, which intensifies the suffering you’ll experience next time

3) Getting what you want often makes it harder to get other things you’ll soon want — for example, when you spend all your money on what you want right now

The typical approach to seeking happiness is to add something to our lives, because we perceive ourselves as needing something we are missing: more security, more money, another possession, the approval of others, a personal achievement. But on closer inspection even these actions are actually driven by a desire to remove something: insecurity, hunger, angst, tension of some kind. We are driven to acquire and achieve in order to remove dukkha from our experience.

There is no happiness

“Don’t seek happiness. If you seek it, you won’t find it, because seeking is the antithesis of happiness.” ~Eckhart Tolle

Happiness (or whatever you want to call that state we are all seeking — joy, well-being, peace) occurs when something is removed, not when something is added. Happiness is an opposite, a negative mold — an imaginary abstraction created to define precisely what it is not. It’s no different than darkness, which itself is nothing at all — only a way of describing an absence of light. Light is real, darkness is just a concept.

So why did we get it backwards? As with most of our inefficiencies, we evolved that way. For millions of years our behavior has been driven by dissatisfaction, which manifests itself in a sentient creature as desire. Our very clever biology has us desiring, non-stop, for anything that appears to put us into a better position to survive. It’s the ultimate carrot-and-stick setup, and we still fall for it because we don’t know what else to do. We can always use more security, more esteem, more power, so the desires never cease. It works very well to the survival end, by constantly creating a mental itch that must be scratched. This itch is unhappiness, unease, or to Buddhism fans, dukkha.

This is how the human mind works now. It creates unhappiness to keep us moving, with no regard for our quality of life. You can scratch the itch your whole life and it won’t go away. It will only put you in the habit of scratching the itch. The human mind has developed to a point where we are finally understanding this awful cycle, and developing ways of dealing with it. About 2500 years ago — a New York minute, in evolutionary time — a curious young prince nailed the problem down. He found we weren’t actually missing anything after all.

Happiness, it seems, is just a shadow. By continuing to gaze at it, we’ve overlooked what’s standing the light.


Photo by WTL photos

nahl July 8, 2010 at 1:18 am

Oh so i can never really be “happy”?
Personally, I’d choose happiness over getting what I want in life any day. God damn biology!

David July 8, 2010 at 9:20 am

You can be happy, but there is no happiness to gain, or find. Our biology tells us happiness is what happens when we get what we want, but it lies!

nahl July 20, 2010 at 5:28 pm

So, happiness is instead what happens when we lose something?! Recognizing that what I want won’t bring me happiness isn’t enough. How does someone “be” happy, or in peace, or content when they can’t feel it?

David July 21, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Well, no, I didn’t mean that we become happy every time we lose something. I just mean that achieving happiness is actually the result of taking away an attachment that is preventing happiness. This is in contrast to the normal approach to happiness, which is adding something we desire to our lives.

To become happy with the present moment (and you don’t already feel like it) you have to discover the attachment that’s present in the moment. If happiness (or equanimity or peace or whatever you want to call it) is not present, then there is an attachment somewhere — a yearning, a craving. If that attachment is discovered and understood, and you become aware of it, then you disidentify with the suffering it causes, and you do not feel unhappiness.

The Buddha’s Four Noble Truths are a way of understanding the role of attachment in the human state of mind.

David August 5, 2010 at 7:27 pm

Yes, that’s exactly it. Your problem is not that you don’t have what you want, it’s that you are attached to having what you want, whether it’s old friends, or an iPhone. So you need to remove the attachment from your life, not add the iPhone to your life.

sasha June 27, 2012 at 9:21 pm

somebody told me happiness and peace come when one is nice to ones parents and when one indulges in daily prayer. It works.

Mark L. December 9, 2012 at 6:05 am

David, when u mentioned that achieving happinesss is the result of takin away an attachment. What does attachment refer to? our human desires which is the root of suffering? So that means taking away an attachment is the same as overcoming a problem..?

Lilly March 25, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I had no idea how to comment other than to reply to one. Your blogs have been an inspiration to me, they’re insightful, enpowering and so eloquent.
I just have one question..
if happiness is gained through relinquishing dukkha…how can you gain happiness when there doesn’t appear to be dukkha in ones life?
or a better way of putting it might be; how do you find happiness when YOU are the root of all dukkha.
I am 19 and depressed, and although my past has been troubled, my life is good now and i have no reason to be unhappy…
can i not find happiness because i am trying too hard?

Anonymous-Xtopherus April 7, 2013 at 10:36 pm

Perhaps what your feeling is remorse or guilt for something, or deep down you know theres a few things you have to do that you dont really want to.

Ken August 27, 2013 at 1:57 am

Dukkha is not just a situational occurrence, but could also be a state of unrest. It is definitely possible that one is depressed; suffering, but do not have an immediate idea why and where the source is from.

The solution is to actively start figuring it out what is making you depressed. It could be as simple as one’s perception of what it means to be happy. Financial, physical, social perfection has no relation to one’s level of peace. Our “gross” nature always finds a reason for suffering. But the enlightened mind sees through those illusions and perceive only the truth.

Mike February 13, 2014 at 6:06 pm

What if my health is bad, I am in constant pain and I just want to be healthy. Do I need to let go of my life? I think this qualify’s as legitimate suffering.

walter robinson November 27, 2013 at 4:37 am

What about regret?

Don December 15, 2013 at 6:26 pm

Regret in my experience is also just another illusion. It is powerful…in fact it can be extremely powerful…so much so that it appears real…that if you had or had not done something different in the past, your present would be happier/less filled with suffering. In reality though, the external world cannot cause dukkha (suffering). The belief that a past decision is the present cause of suffering is the real causative factor of your own misery. There are only external obstacles in life. The causes of suffering are all internal. Theoretically, someone could hack your body apart limb from limb and though you would experience pain, you could get through it without any suffering whatsoever…

Avi July 8, 2010 at 2:41 am

Your blog continues to be fascinating, David

I’m going to quote Ryan, a pal of mine. “Romance is rarer than friendship, but it tends to avoid those who aren’t happy with themselves without it.
Happiness, like romance, avoids its seekers, and crowds those who… well, not ignore it, but rather, let it find them.”

Avi July 8, 2010 at 3:05 am

What do you mean happiness doesn’t exist? That watermelon is having the time of his life!

Dorothy July 8, 2010 at 4:59 am

Hi David,
I really enjoyed this post. This is the best explanation of this central Buddhist concept I have ever read or heard. You are so right, so much is lost in translation!
Thank you!

Jess July 8, 2010 at 6:53 am

David, sometimes you write posts that make me want to leap up and give you a round of applause. This is one of them. Thank you.

– Jess

Tom D August 31, 2013 at 12:35 pm

…and I would join in.
Yet another great article!

JoyChristin July 8, 2010 at 7:13 am

I second Jess…
You nailed it! When I am feeling less than peace filled, I look at my life to see what I may release..clean..make space for..and joy comes swooping in..I also know when I am feeling less than peace filled that is my mind, so I turn it off and settle back to heart centered..always peace filled there:)
Be kind to yourself as you transition..you are searching for what is already within..your entire being seems to be resisting–undertandable– so ease back into “life” and allow for the changes….perhaps other’s expectations are affecting this process for you…

gustavo July 9, 2010 at 12:15 am

I also agree.

You are a good writer.
I’ve been reading some of your posts and I have to say you have a gift for clarifying dense stuff.

I feel like you are in the right path to produce something interesting. I’ll be around to see what comes out.

PS: next question: where do dukkha comes from? Is it just a biology/survival thing?

Kat July 12, 2010 at 6:50 am

it’s just part of being human. A major Buddhist concept is that all of life, in one way or another, with a few blissful exceptions that David mentioned, is dukkha. When we’re sitting, we eventually want to stand. We have itches we need to scratch, both physically and mentally. One could say it’s a “biology/survival thing,” but for some reason I myself am never satisfied with that explanation. It’s human nature. There is almost always some sort of craving in a human life, unless one lets himself let go of it.

gustavo July 12, 2010 at 12:53 pm


I think you’re right. It is part of the human nature, probable an important part, and (probably) responsible for human evolution and so. But that doesn’t mean we can’t look a little deeper. I don’t like to sound overloading. I just think that we might find some useful, pragmatic lessons hiding in that dukkha topic.

For instance:

When we suffer a big loss or we are in the middle of a predicament, it is kind of “normal” to feel unhappy, but the thing is that we are unhappy most of the time for no apparent reason. It is like our default mode, and we don’t even wonder why.

David July 13, 2010 at 8:59 am

In my view biology is where our nature comes from. Given that it makes us suffer so much, where else would it come from?

Andy Parsons July 8, 2010 at 8:11 am

Definitely some good food for thought there.

Vincent Nguyen July 8, 2010 at 9:30 am

What you say is very true David,

Our society gears us toward seeking happiness through “adding” things to our lives but the truth is that it is already inside each and everyone of us.
Last year I was unemployed for 8 months and had creditors calling me 24/7 but that did not stop me from walking the sea-wall along the beach and enjoying the beauty of nature regardless of my financial problems.
I was still very “happy”. I had all the time in the world to write and enjoy life without the “add-ons”.
I also owed a large bill to my cellphone provider and so I had no cellphone for over 5 months (to some people they would go crazy without it) and I enjoyed my 5 months of cellphone free bliss.
Anyone can be happy…question is whether they choose to be or not.

Izzen July 8, 2010 at 9:38 am

This was a really great article. The subject’s been done before in other Buddhist lit. I’ve read, but your concrete explanation helped to clarify the anti-attachment stance: something I’ve struggled with. I personally wouldn’t mind if you dove headfirst into the concepts, but I’ll always give that I’m most likely not in the majority…

Have you found, since un-Kiwi-fying, that you are making an effort to reduce everything, to live like you did on the road?

I’ve been trying to find the base level that I can be happy at, myself. You’re right on track.

David July 8, 2010 at 3:50 pm

I’m not completely unKiwified yet, but I certainly have learned to live with less. On my trip I had the time of my life with about 50 possessions and few luxuries, so I know stuff isn’t all that important.

Tony July 13, 2010 at 2:25 am

David, are you familiar with the philosophy of Epicurus? Lots of great knowledge and perspective in what few of his works still exist. Some of my favorites:
– Not what we have But what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.
– Whoever does not regard what he has as most ample wealth is unhappy, though he is master of the world.
– Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things only hoped for.
– The man least dependent upon the morrow goes to meet the morrow most cheerfully.
– The summit of pleasure is the elimination of all that gives pain. (perfect for this blog)
– The flesh endures the storms of the present alone; the mind, those of the past and future as well as the present. (perfect corollary to your latest blog)

David July 13, 2010 at 9:14 am

Epicurus sounds right up my alley. Thanks Tony.

Jay Schryer July 8, 2010 at 9:52 am

Good one! Like Dorothy said, this is one of the best explanations of dukkha I’ve ever read. Simple, without being simplistic or “dumbing it down”. You’ve definitely rocked the bodhisattva wow! :)

The only thing that I would like to add to the discussion is this: Sometimes, it can be hard to pinpoint the exact source of your unhappiness. Like hearing a strange noise in the middle of the night, sometimes you have to search for the source. That’s why meditation is so important. By taking some time to quiet your mind, you allow the sources to rise to the surface so you can observe them and release them.

graham July 8, 2010 at 9:55 am

Thank you for this post David,

I think many people forget this vital point of buddhist scripture (who are familiar with buddhist scripture), and fall victim to, well – your carrot-on-a-stick analogy – looking for happiness ‘out there’.

This is definitely going to give me something to think about today.

– graham

Abubakar Jamil July 8, 2010 at 10:08 am


Interesting that I posted something very similar yesterday [ http://www.abubakarjamil.com/find-true-happiness/ ] and got to read your post on the same topic today.


I was good to see how you approached the topic and what I really loved was this:

“Happiness is…what’s left when you take away unhappiness.”

Thank you for a good article. Stumbled!

David July 8, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Thanks for the Stumble Abubakar! Much appreciated.

Rajiv Iyer October 20, 2013 at 2:24 am

Firstly let me say that your posts on this blog (and elsewhere) are fantastic analytic insights into philosophy, psychology and wider social commentary.

I have widely circulated *this* post, among a few others, on Facebook, Whatsapp and other mediums, to a lot of my friends, who have also nodded their heads in somber agreement, and appreciative acknowledgement at your writing, analysis and paraphrasing of dense philosophical concepts.

I will also credit you (among others including a few blogging friends) to have inspired me to start a blog of my own recently. Being a fellow admirer of the simplicity and profundity of the Buddha’s core axioms, I couldn’t help but write something of my own, trying to dissect, analyze and paraphrase the fundamental precepts in my own way. And the second post on that blog, which I just posted, extensively paraphrases Buddhist Philosophy, while also borrowing some of your phrasing. I have listed this post as one of the references. You are welcome to read/comment/critique it … http://arbitraryimpermanence.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/philosophical-analysis-of-dukkha-happiness/

In any case, you have earned a loyal reader for your blog. I have read many of your posts, including the one on consumerism, the 9-5 workshift, but this is my first comment. I can’t say that I will be a regular commentator, since I speak only when I am moved to speak (like *this* post), but I will definitely be checking out your archives and watching this space in the future.

Brenda (betaphi) July 8, 2010 at 11:59 am

“Happiness, it seems, is just a shadow. By continuing to gaze at it, we’ve overlooked what’s standing the light.”

That is one of the best definitions of happiness I’ve ever seen. I’ve been carrying around Nathaniel Hawthorne’s definition for years: “Happiness is a butterfly which when pursued is always beyond our grasp but which if we sit quietly may alight upon our shoulder.” I think I like yours better because it involves the viewer in a proactive way. Look at the light, not the shadow.

Excellent post, David. One of my favorites. :)

Tony July 8, 2010 at 12:38 pm

Hey there David, I stumbled upon (literally) your blog about a month ago and when I say it’s the most perfect thing I’ve ever read I don’t say it lightly. I’ve never been a writer, and have never really been able to express myself or put into words the way I think. Because of that I’ve always felt extremely isolated and could never connect with “people like me” (if there even is such a thing). The last 10 months or so have been the hardest of my life (including such things as losing a job, having a car repossessed, kidney stones (my 1st and 2nd), swine flu (yes I actually got it), near death of my dog (and best friend) just to name a few. In going through that and all of it’s related daily struggles a light just went on. I don’t know how or when exactly it happened, but I know that somehow, sometime in the last few months something changed. I lost my sense of entitlement, I stopped aching for the world to be “fair,” I stopped trying to bend the world to think the way I do. After going through all my struggles and remaining observant and analyzing things as I’ve always done, I suddenly saw that everyone goes through things that shape their story just like I have. Some deal with it better than others. Some reach that moment of clarity that others don’t. Everyone is on their own learning curve. I also realized that everything I had and didn’t have anymore, were things I never had to begin with at one time or another. I was okay before I had a nice ritzy downtown apt, I’d be okay after even if at the time I thought it was the end of the world losing it. I dove into philosophy, studied Epicurus, studied Buddhism, studied Emerson, and then found your site. I’ve never in my life met someone who thinks exactly the way I do until I found your blog. Everything I’ve read over the course of the last couple weeks, All your archived blogs, are things I’ve learned myself over the last few months and have never been able to explain. It’s such a feeling of connecting to another human being that I’ve never experienced before that I can hardly describe it. Just know that because of your writing, because of THIS blog, I finally have an outside source of connection with my own thoughts and feelings that helps me not only see that I’m not alone and there ARE people out there in the world that still know what it is to be human and what it takes to be happy, but it also helps me better express everything I’ve been wanting to shout from a mountain top to family and friends; There is a better way to live, there is a way to escape the misery of our lives, and that way is in all of us and it’s just something we have to learn and practice like any other skill or talent. Thank you David, truly

David July 8, 2010 at 3:47 pm

Thank you so much for your heartfelt comment Tony. I have continued to write because I know there are people out there with whom I’m resonating on a very deep level. By writing I’m able to clarify what I really think. Sometimes I don’t quite know what I know until I’ve typed it all out.

I hope you continue to comment when posts strike a chord with you. And congratulations on turning the corner. Sounds like life has big plans for you.

Eric | Eden Journal July 8, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Tony, I feel for you, and I’ve been through some of the same things, job loss and kidney stones. Ugh, I can barely mention those without wincing. I love reading about your change, it’s like an epiphany moment. I just want to let you know that there are other people like you out there.

Kevin H July 8, 2010 at 1:45 pm

wonderful post David,

Life will never satisfy with the intention of having to worry about fixing everything. I agree with Jay also that meditation helps us in our quest to “stop chasing the carrot” that is happiness. Once everything is centered and we feel calm, it is easier for everyone to accept the so called “negatives” that flood our lives. i would like to know though, as a 20 year old living in a day and age that is consumed with chasing the dream, what else can i be doing to help me with this happiness/unhappiness dilemma that seems to be on the forefront of my mind at all times? I know what i should care about and worry about but my present mind wanders and focuses on the worries that I have. i can’t seem to consciously escape it sometimes. Thanks in advance David, amazing post. I’ll be sending it to many people.

Char (PSI Tutor:Mentor) July 8, 2010 at 7:42 pm

“Happiness, it seems, is just a shadow. By continuing to gaze at
it, we’ve overlooked what’s standing the light.”

“Bright night amidst the dark daylight”
~ Gulshan-e Raz

“Black light” (fana)
~ Rumi

Eric | Eden Journal July 8, 2010 at 10:42 pm

I really like this post. My first instinct was to disagree with the idea that there is no happiness. I’ve learned to pay attention to that feeling as I recognized it as closed mindedness. As I considered it more, I can come around to the idea that happiness is a lack of dukkha.

It seems as though many words can take their meaning from what is considered the norm. If happiness were the norm, then dukkha would be the lack of happiness. If dukkha is the norm, then happiness would be the lack of dukkha. It’s funny in a way. I think the whole concept of happiness, or dukkha for that matter, is likely limited to the human experience. After our oh-so-brief time on this planet, the concepts of dukkha and happiness may not even exist at all.

Thomas July 9, 2010 at 1:43 am

I guess I’ll be the first to disagree with this theory…here are a few thoughts I’ve had on the article.

I don’t know much about Buddhism, and I don’t mean this facetiously, but based on the ideas presented here, shoudln’t a Buddhist just want to die? That would be the quickest and surest way to eliminate all desires for something in the external world.

Secondly, it seems like one should desire to have no desires, or to want to overcome wants. Isn’t this a contradiction if the key to happiness is to have no desires, yet presumably one wants to achieve this happiness?

Lastly, it seems like the take on happiness, or what you call gratification, is perceived to be bad because it is too focused on short term gains which can be difficult to achieve and so forth. But many people attempt to achieve happiness with long term and well planned tactics. Someone who wants to become a doctor sacrifices short term gains for a long term value that they hold higher by spending a lot of money and time in training. The addition of a positive in one’s life does not have to result in quick and short lived gratification.

David July 9, 2010 at 9:56 am

These are good questions.

based on the ideas presented here, shoudln’t a Buddhist just want to die? That would be the quickest and surest way to eliminate all desires for something in the external world.

The goal is life without suffering. Dying would be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Many Buddhists also believe that death is not the end of the cycle of suffering. They see consciousness as evolving towards liberation across more than one life. So death wouldn’t get you anywhere in that case, either.

Secondly, it seems like one should desire to have no desires, or to want to overcome wants. Isn’t this a contradiction if the key to happiness is to have no desires, yet presumably one wants to achieve this happiness?

We need desires because without them we’d have no incentive to act. We wouldn’t be able to live.

Desires do not directly cause dukkha. The problem is attachment to the desires we do have. Our minds tend to treat desires as imperatives — true needs — and punish us emotionally when we don’t get them. Attachment is a huge topic, and I’ll address it in future posts. Attachment requires us to be identified with our ego and to view the object of attachment as separate from ourselves. This is the normal way of thinking for most humans, and according to Buddhism, the fundamental misperception that creates all of our suffering.

We can’t turn off our desires anyway, we can only contend with them when they arise.

Lastly, it seems like the take on happiness, or what you call gratification, is perceived to be bad because it is too focused on short term gains which can be difficult to achieve and so forth. But many people attempt to achieve happiness with long term and well planned tactics. Someone who wants to become a doctor sacrifices short term gains for a long term value that they hold higher by spending a lot of money and time in training. The addition of a positive in one’s life does not have to result in quick and short lived gratification.

I wouldn’t say gratification is bad, only that satisfying a desire cannot really get you closer to happiness, because another desire will appear in no time, demanding to be fulfilled. We have to have another strategy.

If you have a recurring desire, such as to work in a particular field, you may feel like you cannot rest until you fulfill that desire. Many people strive for something their entire lives, and when they get it, they realize that doesn’t cure their unhappiness like they thought it would.

But that’s not to say it isn’t worth doing. There are things we can do to put ourselves in a position so that our desires aren’t so troublesome for us. Working for an income, as opposed to living in poverty, would create a better quality of life for most of us, because the most intense and fundamental desires (food, shelter, etc) would be met nearly all the time. It won’t cure unhappiness, but it is still worthwhile.

All along the way though, a person can develop a healthier relationship with their desires by understanding why they exist, and learning how to identify them and let them go.

gustavo July 9, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Again, a lot is lost in translation.

When (Indy) Buddhism talks about desire, they refer to “…the desire on which our happiness depends”. There is also a desire on which our happiness does NOT depend.

You go out to see that film you were expecting for so long, and when you arrive, all the seats are already booked. In the first case, you can only go back to your home feeling miserable; in the second case you can choose to watch another film that might entertain you. Big difference.

Chris is right, it’s not a matter of right and wrong, it’s just that the fulfillment of a desire is not the same that happiness. The first one often drives you to weariness, or fear (the fear to loose what you have conquered). Real happiness is uncaused.

Thomas July 14, 2010 at 3:06 am

In response to your responses:

-OK, it makes sense to me that you would want to live to experience no suffering.

-Interesting, but aren’t Buddhists very much attached to overcoming suffering? All of the Buddhists I’ve heard of are not apathetic to this goal. Even if you want something internally (like a change within yourself), I don’t see how this settles the fundamental contradiction that I see of desiring a life without desires (or less desires).

-I don’t really understand your point about why gratification is bad. You may continually have to figure out what you want and strategize about how to achieve it and even fail sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you will be in a perpetual state of anxiety regarding your next goal.

“Many people strive for something their entire lives, and when they get it, they realize that doesn’t cure their unhappiness like they thought it would.”

Yes, but other people follow these same steps and do end up very happy with their careers. And more fundamentally, why doesn’t this caveat apply to the Buddhist path of eliminating unhappiness?

I think that we may be working with different definitions happiness. Yours seems to be on some deeper level, that I don’t quite understand. To me, all happiness is essentially the same (whether it comes from eating some good ice cream or finding someone who you love). While some may be longer lasting and have different effects on us, it really all seems to be the same chemicals in the brain.

David July 14, 2010 at 12:14 pm

Hi Thomas. Good questions, I’ll do my best.

Interesting, but aren’t Buddhists very much attached to overcoming suffering? All of the Buddhists I’ve heard of are not apathetic to this goal.

Buddhists talk a lot about the danger of becoming attached to ideas of enlightenment and “getting somewhere.”

But they are not apathetic. There is a middle ground between attachment and apathy. It is the state of recognizing your desires, and staying aware of them. Central to Buddhist teachings is recognizing the three sensations of attraction, aversion and indifference. Each one is recognized by Buddhism as an a misunderstanding of reality, because it requires the student to view himself as separate from the object he is reacting to. This separation is the illusion that causes all suffering, from the Buddhist perspective.

I don’t really understand your point about why gratification is bad. You may continually have to figure out what you want and strategize about how to achieve it and even fail sometimes, but that doesn’t mean you will be in a perpetual state of anxiety regarding your next goal.

I don’t think I said gratification is bad. But our culture teaches us that getting what you want is the path to happiness. Getting what you want is only gratification. We become easily attached to gratification because most people are not aware of any other way to feel happiness. You do not have to be attached to your desires in order to get what you want, but that kind of non-attachment is not the norm. We learn from a very early age to depend only on getting what we want in order to be happy.

I think that we may be working with different definitions happiness. Yours seems to be on some deeper level, that I don’t quite understand. To me, all happiness is essentially the same (whether it comes from eating some good ice cream or finding someone who you love). While some may be longer lasting and have different effects on us, it really all seems to be the same chemicals in the brain.

I see what you mean. It is pretty much the same. Happiness is relief from dukkha. We get that relief briefly when we satisfy a desire, but dukkha will only stay away until another attachment arises. So we can try to string together as many satisfied desires as possible, and this is what most people do their entire lives.

No career makes someone happy in the sense that dukkha ceases for them, not even close. But having a certain life situation can put one in a position where their desires are easier to satisfy on an ongoing basis. Most people search for happiness only this way, and it can create a pretty good existence if you are skilled at satisfying your desires. But Buddhism teaches a way to contend with the dukkha problem more directly, in a way that does not depend on external circumstances such as where you are able to live, what job you are able to get, so “how the cookie crumbles” for you doesn’t determine whether you’ll be happy or not.

Uzma July 9, 2010 at 5:19 am

wow. This is synchronicity for me . In the last few days I’ve heard this line twice already ‘darkness is the absence of light’. This used to be my ‘about me’ line for a while. It called to me, without me every understanding it. Thank you for shedding ‘light’. Have to re-read to let it sink in again. My buddhist friend has been telling me the same for a while now. It is all, already here. The sufi’s say, let the veils fall and the light will shine through. Thank u for this. much much appreciated. God bless

gustavo July 12, 2010 at 12:57 pm

‘darkness is the absence of light’. Great line.

I’ve seen it many times before, but never fully understood.


Yu July 16, 2010 at 4:29 am

Thats interesting. It reminds me of something from the Japanese tradition. In Japan, when we thank somebody, we say Okagesamade (御陰様で), which literally “thanks the shadows” for the sunlight. The idea is that the shadow is always behind the sunlight and it plays kind of a supportive role.
Sorry for going off topic, but I just thought it was interesting.

gustavo July 16, 2010 at 12:03 pm

It is interesting. I’m taking notes.

Thanks Yu.

Jamie July 10, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Maybe it is the expectation of happiness that brings it’s opposite. I believe we march through this world demanding our share of happiness. When we do not have it we blame it on others, other forces, Christians, Atheists, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Republicans, Democrats, Governments, Neighbors, Weather and a thousand other reasons both micro and macro. This seems particularly present in Western culture. I believe it’s an inflated sense of ourselves within the scheme of our place within the universe. Through western religions we are taught that we have a special place, a special purpose granted to us by an unseen force in the heavens. Oddly, happiness is promised as a reward for faith, hard work, toil etc. It all seems to be at odds. Anyway that’s my bit.

Murali July 12, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Great post again, David. As somebody who studied the Bhagavat Gita in Sanskrit, I wish you were my teacher. I probably would have done better in my exams, than just barely passing :-)

Keep up the good and insightful work.


David July 13, 2010 at 9:07 am

I haven’t tackled the Bhagavad Gita yet, but I’ve got a copy. So much to read…

Riskboy July 12, 2010 at 8:40 pm

Another great post, i now love this blog.

“What we refer to as happiness is really just what the absence of suffering feels like.”

I have always said to my friends that our world exist in a state that requires a balance between everything. The very reason that opposites (which are usually the bad ones) exist. In order for you to truly experience and appreciate happiness you must also suffer, to know the difference.

Then again i always say that, of the two opposites, one exists the other is simply the absence of former. We all know light exists but darkness is the absence of light. Which means we must seek the light as darkness is already everywhere (because it covers all the space where light does not exist). Therefore it would also be true to say that suffering exists (everywhere) but happiness is simply the absence of suffering.

And as i have stated that our universe is built on balance, which requires opposites to balance each other out, if one force was to exceed the other the results would be catastrophic, even leading to the end of existence. why?, opposites give meaning to life, without suffering happiness would loose its meaning. Without hate love would loose meaning. And anything that looses its meaning ceases to exist.

Before i gave up going to church altogether(because of all the churches i went to, i was in a constant disagreement their believes), there was one pastor who said something interesting, that
“Jesus died for your sins but you are not yet free of sin. His death came at a cost, to have eternal life you must finish your end of the deal by giving your life to God.”

Of course, all the Christians probably heard was “Jesus died for your sins” and “have eternal life”, but i heard something like “a life for a life or eternal happiness you seek will cost you your life”. After years of constant arguing with people who rely on faith and don’t need to reason i gave up on religion.

David your posts are great because you have a lot of diverse knowledge. i will subscribe to this blog so polish my own rough thoughts..

David July 13, 2010 at 9:09 am

Hi Riskboy. Have you read the Tao Te Ching? I think it’s right up your alley.

Riskboy July 13, 2010 at 10:23 am

i have never read it, im checking it out right now, thanx

Kaden December 30, 2011 at 7:50 pm

The Tao of Pooh puts the Tao into a western context. It’s a quick read, and I gleaned some new perspective that I didn’t get from the poetic wanderings of the Tao.

Joanne July 19, 2010 at 11:33 pm

While this was an incredibly insightful post that imparts many truths, I think what is described here as happiness is better attributed to contentment.

With the absence of all the troubles and worrying that cause us pain, we would be relaxed, in peace, content. The feeling would be characteristically tranquil.

Happiness, however, is not a quiet emotion. It is screaming in joy, it is excitement, it is exhilarating, it is ecstasy. While the absence of pain is a start to finding happiness, there is still an extra umpf that is needed to push us to that state of happiness. I do not believe that happiness is always there for us after we rid ourselves of unhappiness.

David July 20, 2010 at 2:15 pm

I agree with you, and I did have some issues choosing the right words here. None are quite right. I used “happiness” as a catch-all for the easy, rewarding, peaceful state of mind we are all seeking. Happiness tends to imply elation though, which is not what I’m referring to. To you it seems to mean “screaming with joy” but to me it doesn’t necessarily. Contentment could work, but it might also imply complacency to some. Equanimity is another candidate, but it doesn’t really hint at the rewarding emotional state peace causes.

Words are notorious for getting in the way of understanding these concepts, because all words are approximations. If one works better for you, then I’d go with that one.

viola woolcott July 21, 2010 at 3:08 pm

Happiness is a choice. Everytime we chose to be happy we are engaging in our power. Happy choices will lead to happy ‘consequences’.

Ramon Sender October 1, 2010 at 6:55 pm

“So, what do we want? A life based on the confusion of believing that points of view have an independent nature, or a life
grounded in the clarity and ease of the basic state?
“There will never be a point we reach where we feel we have satisfied ourselves or anyone else, because the whole game of trying to find happiness and satisfaction by rearranging our points of view is like trying to find a drink of water in a mirage — constantly looking for something that can never be found.
“In each moment we can either choose to emphasize clarity or not. Relying on clarity for short moments, many times —
rather than relying on conventional expectations — provides real sustenance. This will provide us something we can always
count on, no matter what kind of situation we are in.

“Short moments, [repeated] many times [become continuous]. ”
— Candice O’Denver, http://www.balancedview.com

G October 11, 2010 at 12:31 pm

A quibble: dukkha includes ‘great suffering’ – it’s not just limited to the buzz of low-level unease. Great or small, enlightenment means that all magnitudes of suffering are no longer suffering. The personality suffers but ‘I’ am not the personality any more. Not that I ever was but now I live by that understanding. The monk who can sit through being burned alive or being tortured by Chinese soldiers does not have an insensitive brain and body but he does not fear loss or death because he understands the true illusory nature of loss and death.

I think that the background hum of consumerist dissatisfaction is what Westerners think of when they think of unhappiness but for ancient mystics (as in some cases for us, now) there was a real, felt threat of disease, disability, bereavement, crime and death. I think that a state of mind that is only resilient against small niggles is not consumate.

I think a lot of people are baffled by the concept of enlightenment because they think that the body will just be inert and die without desire. But it does what it needs to anyway. Egoless animals have no desire but know how to survive better than we do with all our vices and unnatural habits.

David October 11, 2010 at 7:55 pm

I don’t think I excluded great suffering from the concept of dukkha, but suffering of great magnitude is easy to identify as suffering; low-intensity unease is not. The approach is the same, regardless of the intensity. There is a real threat of disease, death and great pain for all of us.

G October 12, 2010 at 4:22 am

“Suffering, from a Buddhist perspective, refers not so much to outright catastrophe as to the persistent, low-intensity feelings of dissatisfaction or yearning that human beings feel most of the time.”

You can see where my quibble comes from?

When Mel Gibson’s freaking out it’s not low-level but it is self-induced egotistical suffering.

Ramon February 19, 2011 at 2:42 pm

G wrote:
“but for ancient mystics (as in some cases for us, now) there was a real, felt threat of disease, disability, bereavement, crime and death. I think that a state of mind that is only resilient against small niggles is not consumate.”

I thought of Native American stories of captured braves who endured slow torture and death at the hands of the women, all the while telling them funny jokes. The ability to withstand intense pain was a frequent rite of passage into manhood in many ancient societies.

Tobi February 9, 2011 at 6:04 pm

So, adding something to your life won’t make you happy? Does that mean that, if someone is over weight, adding a new workout routine and diet to their life and getting healthier isn’t going to make them happy? The best thing they can do is accept themselves for who they are? Or could adding the new things be seen as a way of removing the dissatisfaction and leaving only the happiness in it’s place like you were talking about? Does that mean that technically adding things to your life CAN make you happy as it removes the ‘dukkah’? (such as that as you feel looking into the mirror and seeing that you’re fat)

David February 10, 2011 at 9:40 pm

I didn’t mean that adding things to your life is a mistake or is not beneficial. What I meant was that the arrival of happiness is always actually the departure of some instance of unease about something. Adding a positive influence to your life like a good habit can help you release or overcome unease.

The conventional way of thinking is that happiness is something we don’t have and we need to go get, but I think it’s more useful to recognize that the problem as the presence of dukkha (or unease), and not the absence of happiness.

Tobi February 11, 2011 at 5:58 pm

All right, I think I understand. You have to add things that will make dukkha go away permanently, like losing weight, instead of temporarily, like buying a fancy new car just because it’s a fancy new car and not because you needed transportation. Maybe I need to read closer, lolz.

David February 11, 2011 at 6:11 pm

There’s not much you can do to keep dukkha out of your life. It’s a part of everyone’s life. The key is really just to be aware of dukkha when it appears, and that way we get a better understanding of what we do that creates problems for ourselves, what kinds of things we react to. There’s no thing you can do or buy that will make you permanently happy. There is no permanent happiness.

All we can do is get better at recognizing that the root of every problem is the same: we have a desire for the present moment to be something it’s not. That’s what every problem boils down to. That’s the main reason people meditate — because by meditating you can train yourself to be aware of dukkha whenever it appears, so then you can just give it permission to be there when it arises. It’s just a passing feeling in the mind, it’s not that something about life is terribly wrong. When you have that experience of staying aware of dukkha as it is happening, then you might notice that there’s nothing about the moment that needs to be different than it is. There might still be pain in the moment, but not suffering.

This is a big topic and this is just an introduction. I’ll talk about it more in the future.

Rose Siboney LaLuz March 5, 2011 at 12:27 pm

I second your entire sentiment. Having only recently found David’s blog I am backtracking through the archives and feasting my mind and heart. like you were then, I am currently going through a lot of turmoil in my life and coming across a kindred soul in these posts is a true lifeline. I am wishing that by now the pendulum of your life has swung to the other side (the sweet one).

ShamanicJourney March 5, 2011 at 3:24 pm

I enjoy reading all of the comments here on the subject as well as the different outlooks, and can sense the different emotions/feelings of everyone. Thanks for sharing everyone.

Ramon March 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Instead of ‘happiness’, let’s use Candice O’Denver’s term ‘resting.’
According to her view, everything arises in our awareness/clarity —
all positive-negative-neutral points of view, all emotions, dukkah, whatnot. If we don’t attach to them, they dissolve on their own because they have no independent reality outside pure awareness.
Actually the ‘I’ has no independent reality outside pure awareness, so there is no one to be ‘happy,’ ‘enlightened,’ ‘suffering,’ etc.

The only thing I add to Candice’s excellent teaching is that “Resting in clarity” (awareness) can be accessed through ‘the self-arising, resonant breath.’ To explain further:

What physical condition accompanies resting? Watch a dog. When it lies down to rest, it first sighs deeply (perhaps to blow away any loose dust or dirt from in front of its nostrils). Then as it relaxes even more deeply, it begins a resonant, relaxed breath. This resonant breath is something we all do when asleep. It resonates the soft palate and also the trachea, that stiff, hollow tube that brings air into the lungs. At its most relaxed, it produces the snore and, in most cats, the purr. This also vibrates the upper aorta that snuggles up close to the trachea where it enters the heart, and through this contact, also transmits the vibration to the blood. That is why, after three or four good purrs (or snores), my fingers and feet begin to tingle pleasantly as the ‘snore’ vibration reaches my extremities.
I identify this tingling sensation as positive feedback telling me that
all lateral tensions in my body have been dissolved by these vibrations.
I described it further to a http://www.greatfreedom.org trainer (who thinks I’m over-complicating things) as follows:

It’s all about soothing energy, isn’t it? I access soothing energy
on various levels of being — spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, but the main thing for me is not to forget to include the body — that good old body, it just trundles along doing its best for me despite the way I ignore it. When I relax into awareness I check the body, and often I find there’s a tense muscle in one hip, or else some other armoring — lateral tension — that needs soothing. Of all the ways I’ve found to deal with soothing these lateral tensions, the resonant breath works the best because it duplicates the total relaxation of the sleep state — but while I’m still awake to ‘enjoy’ it.
Sometimes I also add open focus – which I literally interpret as a widening of the eyes, even raising the eyebrows so that I’m not concentrating one-pointedly on something.
Okay, these approaches may seem limiting or overly simplistic, but body states so often impact mental/emotional states. If I deal with tensions on the physical, the rest of the being takes care of itself.
So I then ask myself, how much relaxation can I learn to tolerate without drifting off into wondering ‘what’s for supper,’ etc. What level should I recognize as “deep enough” to just enjoy and not attempt any deeper relaxations? As a benchmark, I’ve selected the post- orgasmic ‘afterglow’ that usually lasts only a half-hour or so if unattended to. However purring — breathing resonantly into that afterglow — allows it to continue indefinitely, the only limitation being the ‘what’s for supper’s’ that come along and distract me back to my usual ‘set point’ – my operational level of soothing energy to which I’ve become habituated over lo all these many years. So in a sense, to ‘rest more thoroughly than I am habituated to’ requires at least tuning into — and encouraging — the self-arising resonant breath. It’s not about making a conscious effort as it is allowing the body to trigger its own releases by encouraging what it does on its own when it rests.
Over these past years I’ve found that I can dissolve armorings easily with the purring breath that resonates the blood stream all the way out to the capillaries in the fingers and toes, dissolving all tensions that block the ‘flow.’ What a delight! And for me, it doesn’t complicate Candice’s ‘short moments of awareness’ approach, but instead harmonizes well with everything I’ve learned from http://www.greatfreedom.org. I just don’t want to leave any part of the being behind — neither the body, the mind, the emotions, the spirit.!

Let me end with a quote from Candice:
“The Power Is In Awareness
“Awareness has the ultimate sense of humor. And so you know, it’s important to relax and be gentle with yourself. Awareness is in all points of view. You can’t really say that it’s only this or it’s only that. That’s impossible. Awareness can only be talked about in a way that includes everything. In other words, when there is a complete openness of communication between all points of view. So this makes it easy.
“First of all, you don’t have to change. What could be easier than that?…”

David March 8, 2011 at 7:20 pm

There is probably no more helpful a practice in my experience than checking in with your body many times a day. I do agree that a state of conscious, nonjudgmental observation is the ultimate in “happiness”, but it isn’t always achievable in any given moment. We get wrapped up in thought pretty easily. If it’s true that there is no real “self” at the center of it all, just emerging and passing sensations (and I think it is), it’s a moot point if we’re caught up in thinking in terms of our egos and what we’d like reality to be. Consciously checking in with the body whenever you think of it helps a person spend less time getting caught up in the kind of object-oriented thought that makes life so rough.

Juan July 31, 2011 at 6:38 pm

Happiness doesnt exist.
Truth doesnt exist.
Love doesnt exist.
God doesnt exist. (I am not saying that im an atheist)
Devil doesnt exist.
Future doesnt exist.
Past doesnt exist.

You are not your mind.
You do not have life.
You are not what you think.

No one can tell you who you truly are.
No one can save you.

Why am i just saying “bad” things?
Because truly “good” things are not from mind. They cant arise from mind.

Sally Atkinson August 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm

We can chase happiness by removing pain in our lives whenever we can – but the Buddha taught that this isn’t even close to happiness. It’s simply the relief of previous suffering, but it’s only achieved by removing one suffering with another. And the better we get at it, the more stressed and burned out we become.

For example, after a long car drive spent on your butt, you long to stand up and stretch, and when you do it feels great. But after a long time on your feet, you start to ache, and sitting down feels great. This is one example of the cycle of suffering in which we’re all trapped.
Another example – we’re missing our family and looking forward to spending time with them. By the end of the Christmas holidays we’re crawling the walls…
This is the nature of our present existence – pull, push, buy, sell, attachment, aversion, back, forth – no wonder we have so much dis-ease.

It’s not correct to say happiness doesn’t exist. More accurate to say the experiences we believe to be happiness are not true happiness, they are simply a change of suffering which feel like pleasure for that one, single fleeting moment.

And if it were true that you need the lows to ‘really appreciate the highs’ we would look forward to our bereavements, bankruptcy, conflict and sickness, thinking ‘oh good – this means I’ll really enjoy my next spell of good fortune’.

True happiness is a state of mind, so its cause cannot be found outside the mind. Therefore food, sex, television, possessions, even relationships, reading, and creative hobbies are not true causes of happiness. If they were, the more they did them, the happier we would become. But if you indulge in any of them (try it!) without a break they sooner or later turn into pain. That is because they are not true causes of happiness – they are actually true causes of suffering. This is why Buddhists manage to do with less or go in for abstinent-type lifestyles – not because they are have iron willpower, but because they see straight through the deception.

The true cause of happiness is inner peace, which only exists within the mind – and can be cultivated within the mind by practising love, compassion, patience, wisdom, in meditation and daily life.

With love,

Greg B. August 31, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I believe happiness is correlated to confidence and positive experiences. We shouldn’t be on a quest to find happiness because that seems to vague and unachievable. Instead, we should work to create successes of any kind and try and put ourselves in positions where we can learn and be proud of our efforts. Achieving successes of any kind creates a flow of positivity and eventually internal happiness. That being said, we shouldn’t focus on short-term happiness because it will not last. Working everyday to becoming a better person will help anyone create a flow of successful efforts that will lead to a better life. In the end, isn’t that what we are all searching for.

timeouter November 13, 2011 at 11:10 am

Great post, I’m a new reader and will be coming back.

I agree with this definition of happiness. I’ve been a worrier my whole life and the few moments of blissful light were those when I got tired of fretting and just accepted the present for what it had to offer.

Unfortunately, my mind has been trained in producing anxiety to the point that achieving a goal seems somehow inextricable from worrying about it. What’s the trick to stop worrying while continuing to set goals in life and work on them? I would very much like to shed off the worrying reflexes.

Ana November 28, 2011 at 5:39 pm

Have you EVER try to give and LOVE UNCONDICINALY?You are just Men Full Of Thoughts with apsence of Spirit.Ok.i LOVED F.Nietcshe…but, I turn 30, and begin to Love…Try it.Maybe you will knoe that happiness is choice not something that happens or not to you!Love http://www.facebook.com/madamKighal

Dar December 27, 2011 at 1:01 pm

You know I’ve tried to explain this feeling to others before and few seem to understand where I’m coming from. I think about the moments in which I felt best and more often then not, it was for no reason at all. I mean, just any ‘ordinary’ day I’m walking home and it suddenly comes over me, the best feeling in the world. That knowing there is nothing but this moment, and every single thing is perfect and beautiful. I realize now those moments come when I am free of desire and free of fear. My happiness does not come from getting things or doing things, and the idea that happiness is actually the state of being we have underneath all the dukkha makes sense. I like to think of happiness that way. Lately I’ve been thinking that happiness is a state of being that I need to achieve, but still as one that comes and goes, but I really like the idea that it’s there all the time underneath, and for me that rings true. Thank you, David

Holly January 11, 2012 at 8:26 pm

I disagree. I think contentment is the absence of suffering. Happiness is joy at a level a little beyond just contentment. It seemed to me when I was younger I was happy every day until I grew up. I used to be excited for every day in the morning and was happy to go to school and see friends when I was in elementary school. My most valuable philosophy at the time was every day that you are happy is a good day.

I do not feel as happy as then. I notice my thoughts are much more negative. I wonder if it’s because I forgot how to be as happy as I grew older because my focus shifted from finding a way to be happy every day to finding a way to get better grades, get a job, get paid, etc. I am not extremely unhappy, just not extremely happy either.

Maybe you are right and true happiness cannot be attained, especially as an adult living in the real world with responsibilities. I still cannot help but wonder if the reason we are not as happy as we would like to be is because we are not willing or able to focus the good side of life more often than the shortcomings or disappointments. There are plenty of amazing things that are taken for granted that we should be excited about. For example, I watched a video of a comedian talking about how amazing it is that we have the technology and capability for flight. Just think about it, you are sitting in a chair in the sky and instead of being amazed, you complain to yourself about minor inconveniences and wish the trip was over.

Raphael (France) December 31, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Seems that you enjoyed a sketch of Louie CK … Don’t watch its eponym show if you feel bad though : It’s really depressing.

Don February 4, 2012 at 11:25 pm


Kate February 16, 2012 at 6:37 pm

I had a hard time with this post. The last year I have been indecisive about whether or not to stay in a relationship [5 years, we’re both 27 now]. My boyfriend couldn’t possibly do anything else to be a great, wonderful and caring person. There’s nothing he could do. I’m just experiencing a lot of ‘dukkha’. I feel like I agonize and analyze every little thing. I’ve made lists, wrote in journals, talked to friends, everything. I feel like if I leave, I’m giving up on a family, a comfortable life, love, in order to embark on into the unknown. I think about other men often: if I’ll ever find someone who treats me so well again, if I’ll always regret this decision… When I first read this post, it read like I had to give up on the idea of finding true love and to just be complacent in my relationship, enjoying the small things that I do everyday; I’ve always tried (and succeeded) in doing this. It’s only just now, that I realize: My barrier at being at peace is thinking that I need to be in a relationship to be happy. It’s the hardest thing in the world to go against societal norms (I know my parents think I’m nuts and I’ll die alone). But – I think the best thing for me is time, self reflection, and loving myself, however selfish. I think even though it’ll cause a lot of pain for him, he doesn’t need me to be happy either.

Megan McCain April 4, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Does it discourage you when you write such a marvelous article such as this, and some people just don’t get what you’re trying to say? Either way, I appreciate everything you have to say, with each and every article I change a little bit more.

joe May 28, 2012 at 7:45 pm

What if I don’t believe this is necessarily true?
Isn’t there a purpose for the human condition?
Are we meant to fight our urges in order to reach our idea of happiness?
What if my lowly biological urges are supposed to go through a transcendental period in order to reach a higher state of being.
Is every person the same?

I’m pretty sure psychopaths enjoy killing people, as much as some people like going out and spending money on shit.

I’ve spent 9 month in isolation, with nothing but my bare essentials taken care of with very limited social interaction (once every 2-3 weeks).

I yearn for meaning, but at the same time I am completely engaged in my anger towards this world. How hypocritical EVERYTHING is.

Happiness is an illusion.
The reality of the world does not allow happiness.
The world is a living, breathing hell.
If you don’t see it, open your god damn eyes.
I hope I’m wrong, but I’m usually not.

Kenji October 19, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Hi David,

Thank you very much. This article about happiness was so good. It made me understand more about life (on what it really is). It was simple and very easy to understand, as my english isn’t very good.
My parents are Buddhists so I was born a Buddhist. But I didn’t really believed it. Then I went to Sri lanka and I got a chance to read Buddhist stuff. Then I started believing it. And this article of your increased my faith in Buddhism. By the way, Are you a Buddhist?
Thanks again. Please keep on writing. I love u r articles.

David October 20, 2012 at 7:50 am

I am not Buddhist, but I am influenced by Buddhism.

Gwyneth Llewelyn March 8, 2013 at 1:38 pm

You would have fooled anybody, though :) Your thorough explanation of dukkha is pretty much what I hear, over and over again, from all my teachers — and there is little doubt that they’re not correct, because anyone can examine dukkha (if one’s willing to do so) and reach pretty much the same conclusions.

You just have described it accurately using your own words. But this comes from a deep reflection of what it is; you’re not just copying & pasting from some reference book somewhere. This kind of achievement comes from your deep study, reflection, and what for a lack of a better word some people call “meditation”.

Loosely quoting Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche in his book “What Makes You Not a Buddhist”, it matters little if you call yourself a Buddhist or not. If you’re using the same methods to pretty much achieve the same ends, nobody cares if you’re a Buddhist or not. “Buddhist” is just a Western word anyway, to describe “follower of the teachings of the Buddha”, which, in the West, means some sort of religion or philosophy. In the East the word for “Buddhist” is merely “practitioner” — in the sense of someone following a method.

Great work. Thanks for sharing!

Kenji October 22, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Every person on earth is living because they want happiness.(That’s the hope).But if happiness doesn’t exist what’s the point in living. What are we supposed to do with our lives?

Anon January 1, 2013 at 3:11 am

I don’t think there really is a point to living except to survive. Every process our bodies have is based on survival. Life only has meaning because we give it one.

Veronica December 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm

If dukkha carries with it the implication that our ordinary state is one of peace, perfection, etc., how is it that happiness does not exist? Is it that we can’t know/understand happiness without knowing/understanding its opposite?

Also, I’m confused as to why happiness is the absence of something – why can’t dukkha be the shadow cast by us biologically, to cause unease/stress. Or, put more plainly, why isn’t dukkha simply the absence of happiness?

Maybe I’m confused because, to me, happiness means being content in any particular moment in time & feeling gratitude for existing in that moment. Recognizing a reason for that moment existing and for me existing in it. Being able to let go of worries/fears, and recognizing that that release surrenders me in such a way that I allow myself to just be. And appreciating that fact.

I realize you posted this article on Raptitude over a year ago, but I just came across it on Thought Catalog. I didn’t comment there because it appears you’re more likely to respond to comments here. Any clarification you can offer would be much appreciated.

Raphael (France) December 31, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Hi David,

I was just feeling very depressed / anxious and browsing the web in search for a meaning of life when I stumbled upon this article.

Thanks for it, it was very helpful and releaving for me.

But still, there is something in the bouddhism point of view that sounds like cheating to me :
I mean, if you tend to detach yourself from any “unease” feeling. If you consider it as a trick of your mind / evolution, to keep you moving, if you aim at not aiming anymore : Isn’t it just death you are looking for ?

I was raised as a catholic (and am now atheist) and I was shocked how much catholic education put the stress on, or even worship the “Pain”; almost as a goal itself.

Buddhism seems to be at the oher extreme, by considering suffering as a parasite feeling that we should eradicate, or ignore / demantle. At the end, it seems similar to disengage from reality and to consider it all as some kind of “dream”.

How can one both seek (and reach) a “buddhist” enlightment, and still feel concerned (emotionnaly) by the world he lives in ? Arn’t anger, desire, sorrow … part of life, legitimate and not completely negative feelings ?

Is there a right balance in between the catholic and the buddhist point of view about suffering ?

What do you think ?

Anon January 1, 2013 at 3:08 am

I love this. The production of chemicals like serotonin create the feeling of gratification for survival purposes. I feel like this is often confused with happiness.

AndyM January 7, 2013 at 12:10 pm

All pleasure is release of tension. Dukkha = Tension

Leonardo January 21, 2013 at 1:59 pm

My dears , with all my respect with everything you are saying , which logically might be true , I believe that nobody knows anything on earth , why do we exist , why now ? For what purpose ? Is it hazardous ? Is there a creature ? Does what is called happiness really interesting ? Is suffering bad ? A life long time that may last for around a hundred year is not a blink of an eye? Sleeping and dying are not the same ? We may be some germs with small minds … We live only the moment , when we are tired we want to sleep , to die.., that is what is called life is all about …

Chokey January 28, 2013 at 8:43 am

You !! Yes David you.
You are on my top list. :)
I am not a good reader but I might probably start doing it again.
Thank you for the wonderful piece (^_^)

Scatterling January 29, 2013 at 1:35 pm

Recommended reading: Awareness, by Anthony de Mello. Or alternatively listen to him talk about finding happiness here:


Murni February 4, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Stumbled upon this site. Great article. Thanks :D

murielar February 12, 2013 at 11:40 am

It’s a bit late for this post, but anyway…I couldn’t agree more with your article. I leave you here John Dryden’s words: “For all the happiness mankind can gain is not in pleasure, but in rest from pain”

Dave X Robb February 15, 2013 at 3:05 pm

David, I’m repeating myself here, but with every new post of yours I read, I am amazed by how well you present such topics. These are simple things that most people think are overly complex, and your ability to distill them into language that is really helpful is wonderful! I’d like to link to your blog from mine if that’s okay. Gracias.

Artur Krol April 13, 2013 at 6:16 am

Umm. No. Most definiately no.

The buddhist “no suffering” is a simultaneous “no happiness” as well. It’s an escape from these kinds of intense feelings.

There is happiness, and it’s not to be found in dukkha. There is a LOT of good psychology research into happiness and in fact none of it points to buddhism as a way of obtaining it, and for good reason – that’s because buddhist practice leads to a dissociated state of “no unhappiness” – something quite different than happiness.

I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m saying it’s a choice: go for never feeling unhappy, but never feeling happy either, just “nice”. Or go for feeling really happy, but with the potential to feel really unahappy as well. This choice is one that everyone should make on their own.

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Vanessa July 17, 2013 at 1:19 pm

This article is wonderful.. It emphasizes the power we have within, a gift we can access in the present moment if we become aware of whats hindering it, thus comes detachment to outer things..we can be happy in each breath we have for it is the gift of life, the reason we have the opportunity to experience life and love..

worthcommenting August 5, 2013 at 7:10 am

i landed on your website this morning and seen this post. interesting but so true. i have been thinking so much about my own happiness lately and how i am a fake to the world. i hide the fact that i am true unhappy but it is to find that happy middle. why can’t we? i have yet to discover that truth. thanks for sharing your insight. you are truly a unique writer.

elizabeth August 21, 2013 at 9:08 am

great food for thougth! thanks :)

Karam September 12, 2013 at 3:22 am

So when I’m “happy” for someone ( someone dear to me graduates ) and I feel happiness about that.. isn’t that true happiness since I wasn’t feeling “unease” before and I have no benefit from it, so I’m not losing anything. what do you think about that?

Terry December 6, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Good question, Karam. Please accept some mumblings from an old Buddhist, in response. For clarity, I’ve capitalized some terms used by Buddhists, whose more profound meanings may differ from common usage.

No doubt David could answer your question more fully. A friend sent me one of his posts today. I’m delighted to encounter him on the Web! An enlightened blog! What a concept! :-)

The Buddha called that feeling of being happy for someone “Sympathetic Joy”. It’s one of four wholesome qualities of Original Mind that he named Sublime Abidings, pure mind states to be cultivated. We who aren’t yet fully Awake may experience them when the Three Poisons of Greed, Hatred and Delusion are dormant for a while.

The Sublime Abidings, in the old Pali language, are:

(1) METTA – Usually translated as Unconditional Love or Loving-kindness.
(Its Near Enemy, with which it can easily be confused, is Personal Love, which is not ‘bad’, just limited, with some degree of Craving and Clinging mixed in. The Far Enemy, or opposite, is Hatred.)

(2) KARUNA – Compassion. Feeling deeply the pain and suffering of others, empathcally. It’s a bittersweet connectedness, that doesn’t bring one down into misery. It recognizes the experience of pain and suffering as common to us all.
(Its Near Enemy, which it can be confused with, is Pity, which looks down on the suffering person from a presumed superior situation of being better off. The Far Enemy is Cruelty.)

(3) MUDITA – Sympathetic Joy or Appreciative Joy. Taking Joy in the happiness and accomplishments of others.
(Its Near Enemy is Exhilaration. The Far Enemy is Envy or Jealousy.)

(4) UPEKKHA – Equanimity. (From Wikipedia, which says it better than I could): “To be unwavering or staying neutral in the face of the eight vicissitudes of life, loss and gain, good repute and ill repute, praise and censure, and sorrow and happiness . . . is to practice true Upekkha . . . . It does not override and negate the preceding three [Sublime Abidings], but perfects and consummates them.
(The Near Enemy is Indifference. The far enemies are restlessness, agitation, anxiety, or greed. )

suz October 6, 2013 at 7:38 am

what this means, i believe, is that happiness is not absolute or stable. it comes and it goes but never really goes away for good. it is how we view the ups and downs in life that can determine how long we want happiness to stay. yes, there may be events that happiness goes beyond our control. however, it is still our choice to keep it away or to make it come back. we have to remember, humans are emotionally resilient species. cheers!

Rajiv Iyer October 20, 2013 at 1:22 am

Firstly let me say that your posts on this blog (and elsewhere) are fantastic analytic insights into philosophy, psychology and wider social commentary.

I have widely circulated *this* post, among a few others, on Facebook, Whatsapp and other mediums, to a lot of my friends, who have also nodded their heads in somber agreement, and appreciative acknowledgement at your writing, analysis and paraphrasing of dense philosophical concepts.

I will also credit you (among others including a few blogging friends) to have inspired me to start a blog of my own recently. Being a fellow admirer of the simplicity and profundity of the Buddha’s core axioms, I couldn’t help but write something of my own, trying to dissect, analyze and paraphrase the fundamental precepts in my own way. And the second post on that blog, which I just posted, extensively paraphrases Buddhist Philosophy, while also borrowing some of your phrasing. I have listed this post as one of the references. You are welcome to read/comment/critique it … http://arbitraryimpermanence.wordpress.com/2013/10/20/philosophical-analysis-of-dukkha-happiness/

In any case, you have earned a loyal reader for your blog. I have read many of your posts, including the one on consumerism, the 9-5 workshift, but this is my first comment. I can’t say that I will be a regular commentator, since I speak only when I am moved to speak (like *this* post), but I will definitely be checking out your archives and watching this space in the future.

Kristi4016 December 8, 2013 at 8:25 am

I just have to tell you what a difference this article has made in my life. I am so tired of the “nothing is ever enough ‘feeling'”. Chasing after happiness and then just existing for that fleeting moment of “pure bliss” to make me want to move on with another day. I thought something was wrong with me. That I was dysfunctional in some way. Maybe I need medication. Maybe I am just a miserable person. I never knew others felt this way and that I am not alone in trying to understand how the hell to catch happiness. After reading this my heart sang for a moment and I realized I’m just trucking along like everyone else. Great food for thought, great article and my search for more understanding has begun. How ironic I woke up so early this morning, staring at the wall and wondering what is all this about. What am I missing to be happy. Wooolaaaa and bravo David. You are an inspiration.

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The Truth November 1, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Especially when your Alone and you have no love life like many others were Very Blessed to have.

Lance November 7, 2013 at 6:17 pm

This reminds me a lot of Herzerg’s Two Factor (or motivation-hygiene) theory for some reason. I guess because dissatisfaction is usually a result of perception of hygiene factors, and satisfaction is associated with intrinsic motivators. A psychologist who took notes from Buddhism? Perhaps…but the conclusion is the same: happiness comes from within, dukka comes from without.

Speaking The Truth December 7, 2013 at 6:50 pm

You’re very right on that, especially when there are many of us good single men out there that are hoping to meet a good woman to spend the rest of our life with, and we always seem to meet the wrong ones instead.

James Miller December 21, 2013 at 1:38 am

Saying happiness doesn’t exist is not the way to go In my opinion because It creates a negative vibration instantly and not everybody will understand what your trying to explain. I think having a balance of spirituality and science is ideal. But going to extremes in either side will make one crazy, confused, stressed, etc.

Ale March 9, 2014 at 10:44 am

hello David, you made a point what i thought of. The middle mind system. What i felt is, about balancing our life. The life of illusion “in” and the life of reality “out”. If i am right or not, your point is telling like this: There are always two sides of same coin. These are either depression or excitement, either hate or love, and past or future. This is so weird to tell that, i went by depression too much thinking about world problems and got distracted from my-self. Next i got some time to think about me and when i realized my inner self existence as infinity, my mind clicked, yeah this is also happened the way how i curiously starved to truth about human evolution, its purpose and many things.
I felt peace when i understood that there is no time, as it is just our way defining as per solar system, stars, planets, sun movements and of-course ours too. Then i understood that i am human of Earth and same time i am from so and so country, region, religion etc, but not to limiting or limitlessness, but to understand both and have a perfection of life. No one can take everything as an illusion, if so it becomes whole fake and already created world by our intelligent creator becomes mess. And everything is not this world, where we are living with sins or mechanical life made by someone else.
So it is right to say that, free-will becomes perfect when we use it logically and precisely for living and controlling becomes perfect when we use it creatively or by means of illusion or self-faith without rules.
This is how left sided and right sided brains we use knowingly or unknowingly. It is better to use both in everything and in aware of wholeness.
I use imagination and believe faithfully to my career, after making some preparations, it helps me logically by practice my exams and same time creatively to be believe in self-confidence. It gave me more peace, rather depression or excitement.
There is no doubt we evolved with desire, cause we came from that desire itself which is not only showing us but creating truth through us, just by our works and our peace on self is “it”-self.

I modified Einstein quote for accurate understanding like this:

Human without God is lame
God without Human is blind.

I never addicted to anything too much, but still i am depended, cause nature is good and technology yet eco-friendly is best to satisfy my one life as mortal is more than enough. Neither rich nor poor, but we go in both, and how we take and balance both, the real fact and peace comes here. This is present, this is gift, what i felt at every second, as i do vizualization before sleep, of my future career and leave it. That’s it.

ktmack March 20, 2014 at 3:57 am

Nice article. After thinking about it, I think I agree with you. The only thing I would have to add is glee is a possible definition of happiness. It is fleeting but I don’t think it equates to gratification as I feel it is a burst of happiness that is more than a temporary loss of suffering. I feel it is more of a positive emotion, where as neutrality is what you are defining as happiness. I do feel neutrality, or lack of suffering, opens us up to be able to experience more appreciation of good things when we’re not feeling down. Though I don’t know. Buddhist thought sometimes seems to persuade us to not feel happiness in my opinion. I dunno, I probably need to learn more. Thanks for the thought provoking article.

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Buddha Airman May 16, 2014 at 9:27 pm

I don’t think I’ve ever heard my own life philosophy summed up as succinctly as you did in your short essay, ami. I regularly feel extreme apathy, a distinct and solid disconnect with the bulk of humanity and, more importantly, what most of them seem to feel the priority in their loves are; but I don’t feel unhappy, and certainly not depressed by that definition. I think in recent years, I’ve come to terms with a lot of the basic elements of my own thought processes and place in life, and if anything the times when I’m happy, I’m just more happy, rather than floating in a well of discomfort otherwise. It’s maddeningly easy to react defensively in the human instinct to discomfort and displeasure; it takes a certain uniqueness in self-perception to realize you don’t have to treat hurting or sadness as being adversarial. Nothing in that factor of the human mind-self is so black-and-white in definition or application.

I wonder sometimes if a person needs a really big speedbump in their life process to appreciate how good life in its most basic sense feels. That for me, I think, would’ve been my father’s death in 2006. We were very close, and while I don’t believe his efforts ever became a by-definition ‘crutch’ for me on an emotional level, we were quite close and it redefined me- if not tearing down and blasting away a lot of illusions in my life and a considerable quantity of my conscious psyche- when I finally accepted that he was gone. In the last three years, I’ve come to the point where my self-image has been rebuilt to the point where it’s rare that I don’t love life on a daily basis. The joy I feel is a ‘with’, not a ‘have’. I feel an extreme disconnect with humanity on a social/acquisitional level, but I’m not depressed by definition or unhappy with my life. I don’t know if I know anyone who feels the way I do and has expressed those feelings to me. I think it’s fair to say that most people wouldn’t understand the conceptual architecture of it; I have enough ‘left’ of who I was that were I still that ‘self’, I would find that explanation both contradictory and very unusual. I don’t think that former ‘me’ would understand it.

I wanted to thank you for giving me a bit of a boost in believing that I’m not the only person who thinks this way.


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nahl August 5, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Ah, now I sort of get it. For instance, if I’m depressed about how a couple of friends seem to have moved on in life after changing cities, I need to realize that the barrier between my being at peace is thinking I need them so bad. Thanks for your reply and helping me analyze all this! I’m off to read the “4 Noble Truths” that you’ve linked to! :)

gustavo July 13, 2010 at 11:35 pm

It comes from our nature, of course; but, if you look closer to that part of our nature where it comes from, you might find out that it comes from fear.

We can’t bear fear so we built concepts, ideologies and mystic stuff to explain things nicely, so we won’t fear.

Those concepts later built our conception of live, and we see reality through these new lenses. And then, we can’t see reality as it is, again.

We just don’t see. We live our life based in this internal diagram, and we fight to others defending our diagram (generating violence and reinforcing fear), totally unaware of reality. And then one day we stop and see the real thing and…

“…you experience something so powerful that it wrests all of your attention away from your thinking mind, such as a picturesque sunset or an incredible piece of music”, you said.

Tobi February 14, 2011 at 3:24 am

Haha you’re right, I shouldn’t be so eager to know everything all at once, lolz. I apologize for my hastiness.

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