This is an edited version of an episode of Noah Rasheta's podcast Secular Buddhism:
Why do we chase after happiness? I think the short answer is that it feels good to be happy and it doesn't feel good when we are not happy. It doesn't feel good when we are angry or sad for too long at least. But it does feel good to be happy; to experience joy. We want more of the good stuff, happiness, and less of the bad stuff, sadness or anger. And then we get caught up in the pursuit of happiness. We're continuously chasing after the things that make us happy, and continuously avoiding the things that will not make us happy.
We want something and we can't have it, so we suffer. Then if you're lucky you find a spiritual path, so to speak, like Buddhism, that says, "OK, the problem is in wanting. Then I want to not want." And now the fact that I want to not want, and I cannot not want, makes me frustrated. The irony of the whole situation is comical.
And that's the nature of reality: we chase after happiness in a way that guarantees that we're never going to be happy, because we have a misunderstanding of what happiness actually is. We treat happiness like it's this thing, a permanent thing, and if I can find it then I'm done, I'm solid, for the rest of my life. This entails not just being happy but avoiding suffering. I'm not going to be sad, I'm not going to be angry anymore, I'm just going to be this peaceful, blissed-out zenlike person. And the harder you chase after that, the more suffering you'll experience because that's not real life.
This reminds me of the story of the powerful king who assembles all his wise men to create a ring that will make him happy when he's sad. He tells his wise men, "Come up with something that's going to make me happy". After deliberating, the wise men get together and they come up with a ring, and they hand him the ring, and the ring has the inscription, "This too will pass". And it has the desired effect. He realises, "Ah! The sadness I'm experiencing is impermanent." This understanding is enough to make him happy but then he looks at the ring and realises that this message is also cursed. Because now whenever he's happy he's reminded that the happiness is impermanent and it's going to pass.
Emotions, like all things in life, are impermanent. So to chase after happiness, to pursue happiness, is like chasing your shadow. You can chase it your whole life but it's something that isn't a permanent thing; it's not a thing that you catch or a thing that you can grasp.
When we look at other emotions like sadness, anger or fear, we notice that they also arise, linger and then disappear. They are in a constant state of changing, because that's the nature of emotions. We happen to fixate on happiness because it's the one we like. Then there we are, spending our whole lives chasing after something that is never meant to be a permanent thing. It's not something that you can actually get and then, Boom! There you go, now you're happy, you'll never experience another emotion. Because they're fleeting, emotions, they're impermanent. So if we can understand the nature of happiness as something impermanent, then we have a new sense of freedom.
One way to think about this is the way we think about a shadow. When the conditions are right, the shadow appears and, when the conditions are not right, there is no shadow. So, when the conditions are right, happiness is there and, when those conditions are not there, we don't experience happiness. And, when the conditions are right, we experience anger, etc. That's the nature of human emotions.
So what's powerful in this is realising, "OK, the point isn't to obtain happiness or to avoid sadness or anger or all the other emotions." What we'll learn and what we'll see is a wise way of approaching this experience of life is to think, "These are natural normal emotions. At some point I'll feel one, and at some point I'll feel another, and they're all impermanent."
The next time you're experiencing an emotion, whether it's a positive emotion or a negative one, remind yourself that this too will pass. Then you don't have to latch on so tightly to these emotions; it's the nature of being human that we're going to experience the full range of them. And not one of them is permanent. You can't catch it and say, "OK, that's it. From here on in, I will only experience this one". So much of our suffering comes from the misunderstanding of this impermanence.
When you're experiencing anger, for example, you can get angry at the fact that you're angry, because now you're caught up in this conceptual idea of, "Anger is bad. I'm not supposed to be angry: I'm just supposed to be happy or grateful." I speak out of experience. I used to genuinely believe that there is no legitimate reason ever to be ungrateful, or to be angry, or to be sad. In my mind it was always: "Well, think of so and so who has it so much worse, or think of the starving kids in Africa, or some scenario like that." And I'm not saying that we shouldn't compare completely, but what I'm saying is that everyone's circumstances are unique.
So it's unfair for me to say, "I lost my job but I shouldn't be mad because somewhere else someone is starving". There may be some truth to that but human emotions don't work that way. No matter what type of life you have, you're still going to experience the full range of emotions. This is why you have people in third world countries who live in poverty who can be happy, and you have someone living in a first world country who has fame and power and wealth and who is experiencing suffering and anguish.
It's the natural way of being human; it doesn't matter what your circumstances are, you're going to experience the full range of emotions no matter what.
But there's freedom in this. Buddhism is also often referred to as the path of liberation. So if we're applying that thinking to the concept of human emotions, what is the sense of liberation that we get? Well it's actually a pretty incredible one. When you don't have to be happy then you're free to be content. It's like the expression "now that I don't have to be perfect, I can be good". This is similar. Now that I don't have to chase after happiness as if that's the only emotion that counts, I can just be content with whatever emotion I'm experiencing. And when I'm experiencing it I can just be with it. I can understand that anger, for example, is OK. You just learn to be with it while it's there, with the understanding that this too shall pass. These emotions are all impermanent and, when the conditions are right, they appear. When the conditions are not met, they aren't there, and that's it.
There's a baseline where, once your basic human needs are met, beyond it there is no change. Money, power, fame, none of it is going to guarantee more happiness. Money is no guarantee of it, fame is no guarantee and neither is power. We tend to chase after these three specifically because somehow we live in a delusional society that thinks that those three things will have bearing and weight on how happy we are and it's just not just true.
Which leads us back to the initial question: why do we chase after happiness? Well, another answer might be that it's just our human nature to experience something pleasant and say, "I want more of that". And then we start chasing after the things that are pleasant and avoiding the things that are unpleasant. And that's natural. But it's misguided to think that there's any formula that can say, "That's it. Now you won't experience suffering."
When we understand this, we become free. Happiness is part of the overall journey. There can be happiness in the pursuit, but what are you pursuing? What is there to even pursue? If you understand the nature of interdependence and the nature of impermanence, especially when applied to human emotions, then you're free to just experience life. You get to enjoy things just for the sake of enjoying them.
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He studies, embodies and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, attempting to integrate Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism and humour. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids. You can listen to the full episode here.