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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.


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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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Mavis November 1, 2013 at 1:49 pm

Hi there, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i was just curious if you
get a lot of spam feedback? If so how do you stop it, any plugin or anything you can
advise? I get so much lately it’s driving me crazy
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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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