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The missing ingredient to happiness

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Once my father was diagnosed we started having a lot more family dinners together.

We all knew quality time was a priority, but it never felt like we were trying too hard to make it happen. We didn’t have to talk about it, stressing how important it was to “make this time count” or anything like that. Over those few years, we just all had dinner together on a regular basis, and let other commitments get in the way much less often.

I remember how easy it was to be happy at these dinners. There was nothing particularly different about them than the thousands of other family dinners we’d had up till then, except that we were probably all less preoccupied, and when we were done eating nobody was in a rush to leave. Most of the time afterwards we would stay at the table for a while, telling stories and laughing about stuff.

It wasn’t sentimental or heavy at all, it was just nice. I really wasn’t thinking about the larger context of life and death or carpe diem or anything like that. My attention was just on the food and the people in the room.

These are the simplest and greatest luxuries. That table in that old suburban house often felt like the best place in the world to be. You’d think that it would be more common to experience this unfettered “niceness”, at least when you live a first-world life in which it’s never hard to find good food or good people to eat with.

We’ve each had the experience many times, of a moment that’s truly, perfectly fine, but this state is the exception, not the rule, in most people’s lives. Much of the rest of the time it seems like something needs to be fixed or addressed before the moment can be enjoyed for what it is.

When I was reading about personal finance a couple of years ago, I remember being confounded by another blogger’s brilliant question: “If you feel like your income is too low, how much more do you think you’d need before you don’t feel like that any more?” Often it seems like just a bit more (another 10k a year?) really would let you finally be happy with your finances. But then you remember that you probably thought that when you made half as much as you do now.

Something in us, some self-defeating thinking pattern, is constantly putting contentedness just out of reach, just behind a particular to-do being done or a particular problem being resolved. Yet all of the times you’ve felt contentedness, your life certainly contained unresolved problems and unfulfilled desires.

So if you’re not happy right now, what specifically is it that’s missing? What’s the thing (or things) that, if added to your current lot in life, would allow you to feel that “This really is nice and I’m very lucky to be here” feeling?

Usually the question, “What more could you need?” usually only comes up when you’re sitting by a pool with a friend and a margarita. And it’s meant to be a rhetorical question you’re not supposed to try to answer. But it’s a telling question to ask of yourself when you aren’t happy with the present. If this particular moment isn’t enough, then what is actually missing? Could you write it down?

Most of the time it seems like there really is some identifiable condition that stands between you and your being happy right now, as if your unhappiness has been well-examined and is truly justified. But what is this alleged difference-maker? Would your financial situation have to change in a certain way? Would a particular health issue have to go away? Would a certain person have to apologize to you?

This is an revealing exercise if you actually try it. You may notice how silly it is to insist on some particular change to the moment before you’re prepared to appreciate it. Maybe if you had that thing it wouldn’t change anything. Or maybe you can’t think of what it is at all.

Maybe something really is making it impossible to be grateful right now (perhaps a nail sticking through your foot) but often it’s just our habitual human pettiness making a dealbreaker out of a small preference. 

There’s a famous quote, attributed to Rabbi Hyman Schachtel (and sometimes Wayne Dyer or Sheryl Crow): “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.” This isn’t perfect, but it’s helpful, because it keeps us focused on what’s real and not on what we imagine ought to be real.

It is entirely possible that there is some unmet want that really is essential for your happiness right now, but it’s more likely that it’s only Mother Nature’s ceaseless “want factory” at work inside you — a feature designed to keep you striving and competing, not to make you happy.

That is the normal landscape of our lives: we experience way more “wants” than “haves,” and it will always be that way. So if the not-having of something you currently want is enough to make you dissatisfied, then you can expect dissatisfaction to be your normal experience. It often seems like there is a missing ingredient, and we’re real close to it, but that’s just a misinterpretation. We don’t need any more than a tiny fraction of our wants to be met, and recognizing that in real-time would make a big difference to your quality of life.

“There is always a leak in the canoe,” one teacher said.

Many of us learn that happiness is nothing aside from getting what you want. But our wants so out-number and out-pace our “gets” that often when we feel content it’s not because we finally have all we want, but because we’ve momentarily forgotten about all of our unmet wants. That’s why we’re so interested in distractions like television and alcohol. They temporarily protect us from being visited by other cravings. Watch what happens when the show ends and the TV goes off. An apparent need, for something, appears immediately.

What if, instead, you could let a want simply be there while it’s there, and also be fully aware — like the parent of a fretting toddler — that the thing in question is almost certainly not essential to your happiness, and couldn’t deliver it even if you did have it?

This makes an argument for two particular life skills:

1) Learning to notice the feeling of wanting something, without buying the mind’s story that it is necessary for happiness, and

2) Learning to pay attention to the present moment without habitually evaluating it — analyzing how it could be better, more secure, cleaner or fairer or otherwise more gratifying.

You could make a lifetime out of practicing these things, but the first step is simple. Make a habit of asking yourself, whenever you notice you don’t feel grateful:

What else does this moment actually need, in order for me to appreciate it?

Is there really something fundamentally wrong with it, or am I just foolishly asking for something a little easier, a little more perfect, before I say thanks?


Photo by Mircea

A gentle detractor May 12, 2014 at 8:33 am

Beautiful thought. Like most things, much easier said than done : but even trying consciously can be so immensely rewarding.

I love how you describe such profound ideas and exercises in such everyday and apparently simple terms.

That old quote has always sounded rather forced to me. Comes out sounding a bit like those self-help formulas, that is, rooted in correct attitudes but not quite … right. I have always thought making a small change in the wording, from “wanting what you have” to “appreciating what you have” (which is exactly what you’re saying in your article) makes it feel and sound so much better and right-er. Just my $.02, for what it’s worth.

Not to intrude on personal space, but about your father, if your use of the past tense means what I think it does, well, your depth of feeling is obvious, and a half-hug if I may.

P.S. About my handle. I’d used it a few times in an earlier post of yours, the content of which had then suggested the handle name. If you aren’t sick of it already (since I’d then taken a semi-contrarian position to your article, and posted more than once there), I’d like to use it when I comment on your blog if I may. Internet anonymity is the best protection against trolling, so …

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 8:31 am

I also have mixed feelings about the quote, because it’s just a little too glib. But striving to “want what you have” is a big step up from trying to have what you want.

raisin mountaineer May 12, 2014 at 10:50 am

Thanks for this. Your use of the “family table” is so apt– my family table was never a happy place to be– verbal abuse and controlling behavior from a key relative always was a possibility, and I learned early on that the family table was not a “good place.”

And yet… I do wish that I could have fully accepted the good parts of that table– those who are now missing from that table left without warning (heart attacks, mostly), and I would give a great deal to be at that table EVEN knowing that the bad behavior might be imminent– I would be so much more present and even (maybe) tolerant of the insecurity that create those uncomfortable moments– or maybe I would have the moral courage to speak up to try to make the table a safer place for everyone.

raisin mountaineer May 12, 2014 at 6:25 pm

I wrote this early in the morning, and realized that it was way more negative than my life really is– the lesson I learned from my early family table is to bring peace to my own table as an adult. So all was not lost. I really, REALLY like your idea that just because I WANT something, doesn’t mean that having it would create happiness. At my own “grown-up” family and friends table, it means setting the bar low for what a successful dinner, party or gathering is. I don’t think that low expectations are always a bad thing!

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 8:34 am

Low expectations are interesting to play with. Imagine if we didn’t necessarily expect to eat on any given day… the gratitude we’d experience on a very regular basis.

onebreath May 12, 2014 at 10:55 am

I seem to keep being pointed over and over again in the direction of mindfulness these days. It is fascinating to me how I can have such resistance to very simply engaging in a practice that I KNOW brings me great peace. That maladaptive pattern of my life and mind is a mystery and this post makes me think that maybe the key is to quit trying to solve the dilemma and just sit in it…

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 8:36 am

maybe the key is to quit trying to solve the dilemma and just sit in it…

I am trying to learn to sit in every dilemma first, whether or not I eventually decide to try to solve it. Rejecting something emotionally once it’s already a reality doesn’t often make sense.

Neill May 12, 2014 at 1:17 pm

You have crystallized the rough waters of our life into a smooth pond surface. Now we don’t want a big wind!

Part of what I try to do is meditate on “This too shall pass” when I get all frazzled. It helps alleviate not so much the wants but the frustrations of the annoyances of life. Could be related though.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 8:37 am

So do I. There’s nothing you can experience but sensations, and sensations are always on the way out, even when they’re on the way in.

Kristi May 13, 2014 at 9:33 am

I love that and will hold on to it for future reference: “…sensations are always on the way out, even when they’re on the way in.” Such a profound and necessary thing to remember.

Tim May 12, 2014 at 3:31 pm

Oh wow, we were both on very similar wavelengths this morning. See:http://blog.canadian-dream-free-at-45.com/2014/05/12/the-real-secret-of-happiness/

I find I need to just get better at letting go of things and live in “what is” rather than “what I want the world to be”. Not easy, but with some practice I’m getting there.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 8:40 am

Must be something in the spring air :)

Sandra Pawula May 12, 2014 at 4:38 pm

Beautifully said! There is no missing ingredient to happiness, that’s just a unhelpful construct of the mind. Knowing that, I still noticed my mind doing this today so your words are especially on target for me.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 8:42 am

That’s the big takeaway I’m getting at here: see if you can start to notice the times when your mind has identified something as essential to happiness. All our minds do it all the time, but it’s a trick.

Kirsten May 12, 2014 at 6:08 pm

Lovely post, David, and I totally agree that appreciating what we have, what is, is the fastest way to contentment. It seems to me there is one key difficulty that we all face in getting to that place – even if we have made a conscious and fervent commitment to it. That is the amount and tone of the messages that we are bombarded with.
One would have to live in a cave to avoid the messages that we aren’t good enough the way we are and the only way to happiness is to buy (insert product here) or lose ten, twenty, fifty pounds, or make more money or whatever.
It takes a brave soul indeed to resolutely stand up to the media and other harbingers of critical messaging.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 8:45 am

This is a big problem. Our economies are built largely on this belief that your happiness really does lie in certain things you don’t have (yet.)

I don’t think we have to avoid these messages altogether (although avoiding television commercials helps a lot.) It’s only necessary to be aware of these messages as the false promise they are, and notice when your mind has put a particular thing on a pedestal as an essential happiness ingredient.

malena May 12, 2014 at 10:52 pm

Such a great concept and such great writing. Accepting the present moment as it is has long since been a struggle of mine, but I don’t think I realized it was there until I started reading this blog. There was this general sense of dissatisfaction, very un-pinpoint-able. I really want to thank you for putting all of these thoughts for free up here on the internet. I think it’s quite a noble thing to do and even more so because the high quality of your writing shows you really put a lot of effort and care into this project. I actually believe the way you word and phrase these ideas is almost as important as the ideas themselves because you convey this calm and easiness without ever losing focus and that really makes for an enlightening read. To a lot more Raptitude!

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 8:47 am

I’m glad these posts are helpful malena. I think it’s the most important topic I write about and this comment makes me feel like I’m doing a good job.

BrownVagabonder May 13, 2014 at 1:29 am

I like how you put it – ‘The mind’s story that it is necessary for happiness’. I am going through the same with regards to travel right now. I believe if I see the world as quickly as possible in my twenties, I’ll be happy. It is like you said, just a story that my mind tells myself. If I believe that happiness is somewhere in the future in some other country that I haven’t gotten to yet, then, I do not need to stay in the present moment. I can always look to the future. I have started using travel as a crutch not to be happy in my present situation. Instead of becoming a tool for joy and exploration, it has become a way for me to be discontent. I have to stop the stories in their tracks. At least, I have to become aware that the stories exist so I can start doing something about it.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 8:59 am

If I believe that happiness is somewhere in the future in some other country that I haven’t gotten to yet, then, I do not need to stay in the present moment. I can always look to the future.

We are really good at this, as a species. It’s easier to project happiness into the future than to find it in the present because the future is a much simpler thing with fewer details. We make it simple, without little annoyances or details, so that it’s easier to discount the current moment in favor of the future, where it seems like happiness will be easier to find. But when we get there, the future is always just another present, with its normal assortment of imperfections and uncertainties (and pleasures.)

Landed Butterfly May 13, 2014 at 2:17 am

What a wise and thoughtful post. Thankyou David. I’ve worked for a while on being thankful for things as they actually are rather than looking for more/different, but I love the idea of stopping and trying to identify what’s missing when I’m not feeling content. That could be very helpful.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:00 am

Give it a try. It’s like calling your mind out on its bluff.

Anantha May 13, 2014 at 3:37 am

I wish you didn’t mean what this sentence says– “at least when you live a first-world life in which it’s never hard to find good food or good people to eat with.”

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 8:59 am

I’m not sure what you mean — what do you think that sentence means?

Anantha May 13, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Association of first world life and good people to eat with. May be you didn’t mean that you will find good people to eat with only in first world… May be I read too much into it..

Only recently I came across your blog and read all the articles. Loved them.. :)

David Cain May 14, 2014 at 8:43 am

Uh, no, definitely not what I meant. I was just referring to the fact that many of us grow up taking the basics for granted.

Vilx- May 13, 2014 at 3:47 am

What I read here sounds a lot like what Mr. Money Mustache calls “Hedonistic Adaptation”. It probably has a more proper scientific term too.

Perhaps it was most succinctly put by Randall Munroe of XKCD: http://xkcd.com/915/ “Our brains have just one scale, and we resize our experiences to fit.”

Humans are amazingly adaptive. Whatever change comes in our environment we can adapt to it at an astonishingly short amount of time.

As a result of this (or perhaps underlying it) we always automatically adjust ourselves to feel “normal”. If something bad happens (like you become a poor homeless person), we adapt to it and in a little while it seems “OK”. Similarly, if something good happens (like you win a billion dollars), we again shortly start feeling as if “everything is as it should be, normal”.

And therefore the problem. “Normal” is not “Happy”. Normal is when you feel neither good nor bad; it’s the middle of the scale. Happiness is only experienced shortly, when our environment has changed for the better, yet we have not yet adapted to it.

So, what David suggests, what I too see as the only way of achieving happiness on a more permanent basis, is to purposefully undo the adaptation process. You must deliberately tweak your scale so as to put your current situation above “normal”. You must think that “hell, actually, life’s pretty sweet right now”. And since the normal adaptation process will always try to return you to “normality”, you will have to do this for the rest of your life, as long as you wish to stay “happy”.

Good luck. :)

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:12 am

That is a great breakdown of managing hedonistic adaptation. Quite often I do this consciously when I wake up, by imagining myself as a pre-historic human, who happens to have found a 500 square-foot cave with all these amazing things and abundant food stores. If my expectation was to have to go hunt and gather just to live another day, my life would look pretty sweet every single day.

I think Krishnamurti’s “observation without evaluation” is an even more direct route. Managing H.A. is a way of recalibrating our expectations so that when we compare our lives to them we come out above “normal”, but if you could make a habit of viewing the content of each moment without evaluation, then there is no comparison happening at all. Seems to take a lot of practice though.

Srini May 13, 2014 at 3:53 am

Great post.

If I could only bring myself to “want” what I have or get, then life is blissful … simple choice, but requires moment to moment awareness…..

Thanks – there is no single blog that makes as much difference to my life as yours.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:13 am

Thanks Srini

claire May 13, 2014 at 4:53 am

Thank you

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:13 am

Thank you!

Beat Schindler May 13, 2014 at 5:32 am

Our childhood experiences and pasts may be different, but the option to choose between happy and unhappy is not only available to everybody, it’s mandatory. I’ve chosen – unaware – unhappy a million times, before I got tired of it. So I know, to the unhappy, happy people are just people who lack the IQ to be unhappy. To be happy you would have to dumb down.

I’ve got an anecdote just the other day. A unhappy friend had returned from a vacation – unhappy. I inquired, “What if you decided to be happy BEFORE your vacation regardless of what happens, rather than take a vacation just to find out whether you will be (happy)?”

The unhappy’s reply: “Be happy about the things that make me unhappy – doesn’t make sense. What good would it have done me?”

“There’s a thought.”
Isn’t it?

Free To Pursue May 13, 2014 at 6:08 am

“…happy people are just people who lack the IQ to be happy. To be happy you would have to dumb down.” My smile of the day. Unfortunately, it also hit close to home. I recognize myself ten years ago in these words.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:22 am

I can understand why someone would react that way to framing happiness as a choice. I don’t quite see it that way. Often it’s a matter of unconscious habits, which are not really choices. We do often attempt to rationalize our unhappiness with stories, which can seem to others like a choice between happiness and unhappiness, but I think to the unhappy person it seldom appears like that.

Beat May 14, 2014 at 7:59 am

The idea of happiness as a choice? The way I look at it: the existence of two or more options implies choice. We’re talking happiness here (and habits), but seen from this angle the choice principle applies to all human activity. You’re right now making choices … whether to read on or not, whether to reply, or not … the way I see it, making choices continuously is what the human condition is all about. And whether the choice is made consciously or unconsciously I don’t think has an impact on the real-life consequences – very real in both cases.

Kali May 13, 2014 at 5:33 am

I’m guessing that’s the endless battle between gratitude and the will for change and evolution.

I totally agree that we need to accept these wants are a part of the current life and stop viewing life as a “I just need to get/finish this and I’ll be complete”.

However, I have a specific question – sometimes, when you feel uncomfortable about the current situation, when you feel you *want* something else, it is a symptom that your mind is trying to tell you something, don’t you think? I’m not talking about wanting a new coat or watch or iPhone here, I’m talking about an insatisfaction about your career, lifestyle…

In that situation, wouldn’t trying to “shut off” the little voice of insatisfaction stop you from identifying what you really want to do with your life and move it forward to what you will want to become? What is the balance between feeling grateful and happy about the present moment, and listening to our own inner voice when it’s telling us something is wrong with our life and we need to start making changes?

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:30 am

Yes, of course. I’m not trying to say our wants never have a useful purpose. In fact I’m arguing that we become more aware of our wants, not that we shut them off. Naturally, you will act upon many of your wants every day, both the momentary kind and the life-decision kind. My point here was to be aware of the fact that they are ceaseless and that very few of them actually need to be fulfilled (and indeed most won’t.)

David May 13, 2014 at 5:44 am

Nailed it yet again, Mr Cain!!
Great article. Appreciate all you do, mate!

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:31 am

Thank you sir

Free To Pursue May 13, 2014 at 6:12 am

“…often it’s just our habitual human pettiness making a dealbreaker out of a small preference.”

We’ve been raised to always want more. We’re taught to expect things to be perfect and, when they’re not, to go and fix it with more stuff or with some sort of action. Spreading the word to the masses that it’s a construct of the mind would just not be profitable.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:33 am

Spreading the word to the masses that it’s a construct of the mind would just not be profitable.

Absolutely, and that’s a big reason why self-reflection like this is still such a fringe thing in the West. A contented population is terrible for all kinds of businesses.

KS May 13, 2014 at 6:59 am

Awesome and soooo accurate. What a great observation I’m giving this to my 93 year old mother who is constantly in a viscous cycle of trying to understand her condition(s) of poor health and drug dependence. I offer as much encouragement and reasoning as possible but this lays it out perfectly! Need to print it in big type though, thanks!

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:35 am

Best of luck.

Chris @ Flipping A Dollar May 13, 2014 at 7:12 am

I just experienced this over the weekend celebrating Mother’s day. My family and I watched my 1.5 year old daughter run around kicking a ball and popping bubbles. One of the most content feelings I have and yet it was so simple. I didn’t have any worries or thoughts about work or cleaning the house at that time. You’re exactly right about ‘wants’ exceeding ‘gets,’ but on top of that, the ‘wants’ exceed our free time too. I want to do too many things but have no time or waste any free time in front of the TV.
I’m trying to remind myself that even though time will go on, my life is finite. We’ll see how that goes…

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:37 am

A lot of it really is a matter of learning to notice when your mind is wandering, and bringing it back to where you are. So many of our moments can be enjoyed that way: something simple is happening and it’s beautiful and fulfilling just because we’re staying with it instead of drifting into our thoughts.

Elisa Winter May 13, 2014 at 7:17 am

Sounds a lot like Pema Chodron– the noticing without judging. It’s just the tiniest little shift in the mind. Took me a while to learn to notice, another while to notice the judging. Then, here’s the sentence I made up that really helped me, “This is what we do– we judge.” That acknowledgment and recognition of this thing we all do, and that it’s okay that we all do this judging thing, frees me occasionally. That’s the crack that the light comes in. We judge and we have the choice in that moment of recognition not to. “I don’t have to judge this right now. I can if I want, but I don’t have to. I can just be content instead.” Works wonders. Makes me act like a twelve-year-old a lot. But that’s another story.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:38 am

Whatever helps. The sentence in my head is often: “I’m evaluating this again,” and so I try to look again with the intention to let it be what it is, without introducing my preferences.

Muskrat May 13, 2014 at 8:35 am

A very interesting article, and true. However, as someone seriously contemplating taking early retirement by Christmas, it got me wondering…how can I know that my desire to take early retirement is not a feeling of “If I do this then I will be happier” but something that is truly right for me in the longer term.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:41 am

Good question. There are definitely things we can do that can result in our being happier, and there’s nothing wrong with doing them. I doubt your early retirement plan is something you’re going to regret. But watch for the belief, “I can’t be happy until I’m retired.”

Michael Eisbrener May 13, 2014 at 8:44 am

The trouble with ‘noticing’ for me is it almost defeats the purpose. When ‘present’ to the moment, to what you are doing there is no noticing. The noticing only happens afterwards. The goal of all being present moments is to be notoriously happy. Practicing evaluating, judging, not judging or any other way of being is out of time, out of the flow and out or presence. It is living inside your head. Happiness is a gift. It is not something you can acquire either by accomplishment or personal creation. You may be able to fake it and have someone else experience happiness … doubt that is really happiness. The ‘buzz’ of happiness happens. Looking for it almost guarantees it will not appear. Doing what needs being done is a great place to begin. The goal of life, the end of life is happiness. You may have to suffer for it however doing what needs doing, accepting what is happening now as perfect and complete just the way it is. For me that only occurs when “I” am present, unthinking, noticing only now.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:53 am

I agree with you. But most people have trouble getting into a state where they are simply noticing the unfolding of the moment and not wrapped up in thinking. So how do we get there? Learning to notice the kinds of thoughts you have, and learning that it is safe to let them go unresolved, can allow people to begin to experience gaps in the normal stream of needy thoughts and experience states of presence.

Noticing your thoughts is a major theme in meditation, but it is not presence that gets interrupted by it. It’s unconscious thinking becoming conscious. In that moment of noticing the thought, we finally have a choice to remind ourselves that it’s just another desire emerging, and unless your pants are on fire it’s safe to return your attention from your thoughts to the present. These too are thoughts, but they allow us to become present again.

John May 13, 2014 at 8:51 am

Awesome moment of clarity, once again! While reading, I had this thought about survival and evolution. Back in the day, our needs and happiness were largely dependent on food. Since we have food on practically every corner now and can even have it delivered, we’ve gotten to a point where almost nothing is satisfying anymore. This is of course a simplified summation of our history, but I think throughout our evolution, as out basic needs are met very relative ease today, further external needs lose their excitement when they are so easy to acquire. Alternatively, if external needs are always “just one paycheck or bonus away,” when we can’t acquire them we go into the default mode of being not content.

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 9:57 am

I think there are two overlapping problems. The first one is that our culture, like you say, is always encouraging further acquisition, more, better, faster, saltier, fancier. It places happiness in a difference set of circumstances than the one we’re in, but often one close enough that we think we really can get it.

The other one is a problem that has always been there, even for our ancestors, which is that there is no real lasting satisfaction. Desire is a treadmill, not a yellow brick road. There is nothing we can do, no thing we can acquire, that permanently satisfies. It is always fleeting. So ultimately we have to learn to train our minds to manage the ceaseless emergence of desires, in one way or another.

Terrance Moran May 13, 2014 at 9:11 am

I feel this sense of unease / dissatisfaction every day and wonder what’s at the core of my unease. I have everything I need – a home, camera, musical instruments, books, food, TVs, digital devices, clothing, gym membership, cars, friends, golf clubs. I can do whatever I want when I want. I have grandchildren. The finest wines, bourbons, tonic syrup. I eat at great restaurants. Have accounts at every freaking retail store. And yet – I go thru my day feeling like somethings missing.
Thanks for posting this as I will start asking myself what else do I actually need to appreciate the moment, my life, my wife, my children, my day?

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 10:09 am

I think unease usually isn’t a symptom of something wrong, it’s just mother nature’s way of keeping you in a competitive state. Desires are ceaseless, and they cause unease as long as we feel they must be resolved. Buddhism is an attempt to break down this problem, and you might find it interesting.

In the mean time, you might try a gratitude exercise I often do: I imagine losing certain things. I imagine the walls suddenly being gone, or my bed disappearing, my clothes disappearing from my body. I imagine the people in the room (friends and family) are gone. I imagine these losses and absences as vividly as possible, and when I realize that they are still there it’s hard not to feel lucky.

Try this:


A gentle detractor May 13, 2014 at 1:08 pm

That article you linked to was beautiful!

A question, though.

Emphasizing the impermanence of something may well lead to renewed and heightened appreciation of that thing. But may it not, equally, lead to a turning away from that very thing?

David Cain May 14, 2014 at 9:06 am

Can you give me an example?

A gentle detractor May 14, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Sorry, my reply slipped down there somehow

A gentle detractor May 14, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Sorry, my reply slipped down there, somehow

Anya May 13, 2014 at 9:32 am

Well, really it depends on the type of person you are. Some people can enjoy themselves anywhere anyhow. I am not this type of person. I’m a location person, and if I don’t like the location of where I live I’m simply miserable. This was discovered after my family and I had moved from suburban Georgia to Pittsburgh. We had more money/luxuries in Pitt, but that was where I discovered what true misery felt like. I just had to figure out WHAT made me content in the first place. You’ve at least got to know yourself first.:)

David Cain May 13, 2014 at 10:12 am

I’m not sure if it is helpful to identify yourself as a particular “type” with fixed desires and needs. I have been someone who couldn’t be happy anywhere, and at other times someone who could be happy almost anywhere, and a lot of other types in between. I’m convinced it’s a matter of perspective and thinking habits.

RobT May 13, 2014 at 10:26 am

Ah, pixilated cogitations! What of the nature of happiness? A “noun-ing” or “verb-ing”? A question or declaration? Things as they are vs. story being told. See the internal connecting of five senses and a thinking mind? See the arising (and falling) of energy/tension in the offering of these thoughts and responses? Does one want the wanting? Yes! Thomas Merton put forth the idea that paradox signals the limit of rational thought. What then? His take suggested transcendence.

Antonio Machado’s poetry comes to mind:

Last Night, As I Was Sleeping

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt — marvelous error!—
that a spring was breaking
out in my heart.
I said: Along which secret aqueduct,
Oh water, are you coming to me,
water of a new life
that I have never drunk?

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt — marvelous error!—
that I had a beehive
here inside my heart.
And the golden bees
were making white combs
and sweet honey
from my old failures.

Last night, as I was sleeping,
I dreamt — marvelous error!—
that a fiery sun was giving
light inside my heart.
It was fiery because I felt
warmth as from a hearth,
and sun because it gave light
and brought tears to my eyes.

Last night, as I slept,
I dreamt — marvelous error!—
that it was God I had
here inside my heart.

Thank you, David! Another marvelous error! Peace.

David Cain May 14, 2014 at 8:47 am

That was beautiful, thank you Rob. I think transcendence is central part of the discussion of human happiness, but it’s just so hard to talk about. Maybe poetry is a better medium.

Duska Woods May 13, 2014 at 11:01 am

Very insightful, thank you David for bringing up a very simple and by many forgottent way of life when simple but meaningfull things were enough to make us feel happy and content. Perhaps the way today’s culture and advertizing media imposes the unrealistic expectation on peole needs to be examined. It’s so dificult especially for our young generation who struggles with finding who they are, to distingwish the superficial values from real ones. The ‘cultural buzz’ is so pervisve and everybody is trying to ‘keep up’ that it’s easy to forget ‘who we are’ and what is really important in life. Some have never experienced dinner around the table with a family for example, both parents often work and many menbers of the fsmily eat alone or in front of TV…I don’t know, looking at the way life is today I sometimes feel it’s hopless.

David Cain May 14, 2014 at 8:55 am

Media and advertising has come up several times in this discussion. It really is about exploiting our greatest liability, which is the ceaseless stream of desires we experience in life. Trying to evoke a desire in another person is an attempt to destabilize a person and open them to your influence. As individuals we have to be aware of the role of this want-mongering and the way it affects our states of mind, if our culture is going to move to a healthier place.

Sugantha May 13, 2014 at 11:45 am

When I read this article I m reminded of some of the people who are always living “in the moment”, that they shirk responsibilities. There seem to be no inner struggle in them to better themselves. I m not saying one has to always try to better themselves, but shouldn’t systematic improvement of one’s being, an essential ingredient for happiness? Something as simple as getting satisfaction from cleaning one’s house, students preparing for the forthcoming exam. Of course what you say is true. But the reason for our inherent dissatisfaction stems from greediness, constant comparison with others, excessive zeal for wealth.

David Cain May 14, 2014 at 8:59 am

I think there is a difference in what most people mean by the phrase “living in the moment” and “living for the moment.” Living for the moment implies a life of impulse and lack of planning, while living in the moment usually implies an ability to live in a lucid manner and avoid getting lost in thought.

I am all for self-improvement, but that can be done in a both a completely impulsive and mindless manner (joining every diet craze you hear about) or a rational and mindful manner.

Eddieographer May 15, 2014 at 8:31 am


I was thinking about this very concept recently and trying to understand how these concepts were related/different

Michael James May 13, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Great post! My understanding of this began when I spent time in some remote areas in Africa. They would be classified as low in the poverty level by US standards. They lived in huts, had 1-2 sets of clothes, and somehow had enough food to eat that day. The biggest revelation to me was that they never heard of being poor, so this did not mean anything to them. They were fortunate not to have materialism around them to constantly aspire to have something else. This was all they knew. The biggest impact to me personally was when they offered to me what they had. They did not understand my comment that, “No, I can’t take that from you.” In fact they thought that it would be an insult not to accept what they offered. I had a real lesson in happiness that day, realizing that it was nothing that I had learned it was, but instead a belief, a mindset.

Thanks for sharing your post.

David Cain May 14, 2014 at 9:04 am

Thanks for this comment Michael.

The biggest revelation to me was that they never heard of being poor, so this did not mean anything to them.

This is really interesting. I guess a lot of our desire to be somewhere we’re not stems from being exposed to lives that appear vastly better than ours. I remember a talk by Barry Schwartz about how having choices often makes us unhappy, because we’re more aware of what we did not choose, or do not have.

Henna May 17, 2014 at 5:26 am

Thanks for this post! While reading it I was thinking that comparing myself to others around me matters a lot. The average sets the normal. I read about a study on how the people around you affect your health: a middle class minority family will be, on average, more healthy when living among their own group compared to a situation when they live in a majority suburb. It seemed that in the majority area they felt something lacking and somehow it affected their health (through behaviour, mindset… the study didn’t tell).

I my own life I see something similar – I’m currently unemployed and studying, so I have quite few financial resources. But I have plenty of time. I often forget to be happy for it and whine about the money. It helps a lot to hang out with other people in a similar situation. I don’t need to constantly justify my choises (either to myself or to others).

Tiva Joy May 13, 2014 at 11:03 pm

Thank you for this, David.

David Cain May 14, 2014 at 9:04 am

Thanks for coming, Tiva :)

Cascade May 14, 2014 at 7:32 am

This is one of those things where I didn’t even realize I had this problem. Now I feel better. Thank you, again.

A gentle detractor May 14, 2014 at 4:05 pm

I’ll give you two, one personal, the other also personal but more commonplace.

It turned out, some time back, I had a certain medical condition. The details aren’t relevant, but when still young I was faced with and made aware of my mortality. And that seems to have loosened the ties. Work, possessions, even relationships seem, in this light, trivial, superficial, banal, and no longer as involving (ensnaring?). A drawing away.

More commonplace example. Bus or train or plane, person sitting next to me for a few hours. Sometimes that lets me open up and talk to this person, if they also were so inclined of course ; more often I am aware of the transitoriness of the association, and don’t like to invest the time and energy, and keep my distance, limiting talk to minimal courtesies.

So awareness of transitoriness can, it seems, have diametrically opposite results, depending.

Jennifer A May 15, 2014 at 5:08 pm

I wonder if it’s really something missing or an incessant wanting that’s causing unhappiness or if it is one’s distance from his/her true self.

I totally understand the lack of mindfulness and awareness of all that is good in our lives that we all inevitably experience. However not all unhappiness is this chronic kind. I do think there are “levels” of unhappiness. There’s one wherein a simple mindfulness exercise would alleviate the unhappiness… And then there’s the significant unhappiness that requires meaningful, significant change.

I think the two are completely different from each other and needs its own addressing.

A gentle detractor May 16, 2014 at 8:42 am

Jennifer, your comment reminds me of that old slogan/motto : Give us the patience/fortitude to endure that which must be endured, the courage to change that which ought to be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. (More or less that, I’ve quoted from memory.)

David, this is something I do have trouble wrapping my mind around. I find mindfulness a fascinating tool. At one level it is truly beautiful and inspiring. At another level, though, it appears simplistic and rather jejune.

Perhaps it is actually designed to obviate our general lassitude and general ennui, as Jennifer suggests, as opposed to real stark misery? Perhaps it is more applicable to the privileged, the already-haves? After all the Buddha himself was the son of a king, no less, and his own society/country was, like the industrialized West of today, a world of plenty, a (fairly) civilized and gentle world (albeit without today’s technology and complexity).

Think of the African man kidnapped from his tribe to the (American) South in pre-Civil War days. He gets whipped every day, has to literally work like a slave, wearing away his own youth and health, eats maybe once a day,and all for the benefit of someone else, with nothing but death to look forward to. And what is more, he sees his own family (if he gets to have a family at all) treated likewise. I don’t know, mindfulness may perhaps give him some peace, just perhaps, if he is really really good at it—but wouldn’t it also make him more reconciled to his lot? Might he not be better served by unmindful anger finding expression in violence? (Not that either would make any difference, at least not at an individual level).

But perhaps you agree with this line of thinking? After all you did speak of the First World in your article. (Or was that reference just an example?)

Vishal May 16, 2014 at 12:30 pm

Great post David.

“Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.” -Wow!

To me that is the essence of gratitude. If we could just adopt this single mindset, Unhappiness & misery in society would get lessened to great extent.

Here is another perspective on happiness: http://gameligit.com/lasting-happiness-fresh-perspective/

Shrinivas May 16, 2014 at 11:32 pm

Another great post !
There is a gentleness in the way you write that is endearing.
Whenever I open your website, I feel this sense of calmness descending on me. Your writing makes me think and reflect and I am grateful that it is offered free. I enjoy and learn from some of the comments, too !

Kabamba May 19, 2014 at 5:09 am

I have always enjoyed when you have talked about 2 things: headlessness and happiness. :-)
Good job.

Drossi May 20, 2014 at 9:40 pm

Thanks for another great post!

I particularly liked how you ended “am I just foolishly asking for something a little easier, a little more perfect, before I say thanks?” – an excellent gratitude practice I’ve implemented is to consciously stop a few minutes everyday to appreciate and few gratitude for 3 things in my life.

It is amazing how much each and everyone of us can be grateful about. If we only open our eyes to it.

All the best!

V June 19, 2014 at 12:42 am

Really enjoyed this post, thank you!

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