WW: 🤚”Stop prioritising happiness in life. Scientists say it hurts. ” 

WW: 🤚”Stop prioritising happiness in life. Scientists say it hurts. ” 

Wholesome Wednesdays (WW): Bringing you curated positive content on Wednesdays to uplift your hump day.

In life, we often choose what makes us feel good first and avoid the unpleasant. But scientists discovered that prioritising happiness can backfire and move us further away from being truly happy. But what exactly is happiness and how can we pursue it successfully? Here are two sharings that offer some answers: 

1. Don’t chase happiness. Become antifragile.
2. Choose pain first

Don’t chase happiness. Become antifragile.

Cr: Unsplash

What’s going on here & Why we like it

Tal Ben-Shahar, a positive psychologist, used the analogy of the sun to describe the happiness paradox. If we look at the sun directly, we’ll hurt our eyes. Similarly, if we pursue happiness directly, we’ll end up depressed. To resolve this paradox is to understand that 

a happy life doesn’t mean being happy all the time.  Learning to accept, and even embrace painful emotions is an important part of a happy life.

This is parallel to the First and Second Noble Truths that the Buddha taught. 

The first noble truth is all about recognising the presence of suffering and understanding it. The second noble truth states that the reason for suffering is the craving for sensuality, the craving for becoming, and the craving for non-becoming. This means that the more we want to become happier, the more we might suffer. 

The more we don’t want to be unhappy, the more we also suffer. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue happiness at all, we just do it indirectly, as Tal Ben-Shahar shares. How? Using the practical framework called S.P.I.R.E to attain that whole being. Because happiness is much more than pleasure, happiness is a whole being. Similarly, the Buddha also prescribed a framework for happiness – the Noble 8-fold path.

Wise Steps

  1. The next time you experience pain, investigate and explore how you can use it to grow your resilience. 
  2. Reevaluate how you pursue happiness in life and aim to adopt a holistic approach.

Check out the video here or below!

Choose pain first. 

Cr: Unsplash

What’s going on here & why we like it

James Clear, author of Atomic habits, who is known for his wisdom in productivity shares the benefits of doing the painful things first. 

We are more likely to remember our lives as happy if they improve over time. 

This is pretty much like the Chinese saying 先苦后甜 , directly translated as bitter first, sweet after, which is usually used to describe how one will reap the rewards after the pain and hard work. 

Reflecting on this principle in our practice, how often do we expect to experience peace right away in our meditation? Perhaps we give up on meditation because sitting with restlessness or boredom or physical discomfort is tough. But what if we recognise that noticing discomfort is step 1 of the process? If we can be a little more patient with the pain, and see it as a part of progress, we will experience bliss right after. We’re sure that seasoned meditators would agree.  

No pain no gain, some would say. Of course, we’re not suggesting that you deliberately make your life difficult. Rather, we’re suggesting that you embrace the inevitable difficult parts of life and use them skilfully for growth. 

In this article by James Clear,  you can find many examples of how choosing to do the painful thing first is beneficial. James also suggests multiple ways we can use this approach in life for us to see our life as a happier one. 

Wise Steps

Choose to do the ‘painful’ thing first and end your day with the delightful. 

Read it here

What to do when there is ‘nothing’ to be grateful for?

What to do when there is ‘nothing’ to be grateful for?

TLDR: How many of us have heard that we need to be ‘more positive’ and ‘be grateful’, often without much context to this advice? Have we wondered whether it is the most appropriate action for our situation?

A friend suggested that I start a gratitude journal to ‘be happier’. Having heard of the lauded benefits of a gratitude journal but having no urgency to undertake the exercise, I politely said “I’ll ask you more when I want to do it”. 

The second time he mentioned it again, I felt like I was being forced on something I did not need nor want. Nevertheless, I said “okay, tell me more” out of curiosity about his view.

He was probably glad that I was finally open to his suggestion and enthusiastically explained that I need to journal in the following order:

  1. End the day with three amazing things that happened in the day
  2. How could I have made today better?
  3. Start the next day with three things I’m grateful for
  4. What are three things that would make today better?
  5. An affirmation for the day

Be aware of the tunnel-view

Listening to his explanation, I enquired a little more: 

How do you define ‘amazing’? 

Must things always be ‘amazing’ for you to feel grateful?

What if you run out of amazing/good/better ‘things’ to be grateful for?

This friend was probably a little taken aback by my questions and carefully tried to shorten the conversation. I must admit I tend to question certain views/perspectives that seem ‘fixed’ on the surface, something that may not always be appreciated by others.

It is not the intention to challenge people for the sake of it or even to invalidate their views. It is mainly for active discussion on the bigger picture we might have missed by holding tightly to these views.

I do agree there are benefits to looking at (small and big) things in appreciation – like the quote we often hear: ‘What we focus on, becomes our reality.’

At the same time, I caution against whitewashing situations into positivity just because it’s the ‘right thing’ to do.

I see the benefit of honestly assessing feelings/emotions arising and looking deeper to see the source of such emotions and lessons I might find.

What does ‘grateful’ actually mean?

Grateful (adj) is defined in Oxford Learner’s Dictionary as “feeling or showing thanks because someone has done something kind for you or has done as you asked”. 

It makes sense to me that there is a need for a person to be grateful for something, whether or not it results from someone. 

Nevertheless, I’m speaking against forcefully conjuring up positive aspects to be grateful for when it could be more helpful to take a wider-angle approach. 

It was just months ago that I faced this. The old condition of lower back pain returned, in its worst form (yet). Since then, every single step caused a sharp pain in the back, I was unable to sit up or even bend from the waist. 

I joked with my colleagues that I was working horizontally – literally lying down with the laptop on bended knees. The flexibility to work from home was helpful then. 

As the weeks and months developed, the pain spread to the leg, and I was unable to sleep at night due to the almost constant aches. There was not only a worsening physical condition but also the plunging of my mind into darkness – a feeling of helplessness as I was living alone in Singapore. 

The fear crept in: ‘What if I fall, knock my head somewhere and just pass on?’, ‘What if I don’t recover this time?’ 

The familiar treatment cycle returned: specialist visits, scans, physiotherapy visits, chiropractor visits, TCM visits. The pain subsided and returned, sometimes lighter, sometimes stronger. The short period of relief was during deep sittings of meditation. After months of treatment, there was this exhausted air surrounding me.

 

When ‘gratitude’ takes a back seat, what can happen instead?

One day I decided to stop all treatment and laid with all the pain, fear, and anxiety. The pressure of efforts and expectations had finally got to me. I was burnt out from fixing my pain. I was extinguished before the pain was extinguished.

As soon as I made that decision inside my heart to not strive, a surge of peace arose. 

The pain and aches were still present, but the agitation and frustration surprisingly went away. I moved slowly through the days, physically and emotionally. A clear message surfaced for me: Take it slow. 

Sure, there were many things that I could focus on for gratitude: friends who checked up on me regularly, friends who offered to send food, situations that allowed me to work from home, and an understanding boss who allowed my short-notice days off for treatment visits. 

They were all valid ‘things’ to be grateful for. 

I do agree that we could steer the mind to be more aware of positive aspects of our day; not led astray by emotions into the darker side. 

But what if we just can’t? 

Not immediately or maybe not for this situation. We, perhaps, can just be with the pain and see it as it is. Pain is something not to be ‘treated quickly’ but something to be ‘embraced’. That opens us up to opportunities beyond ‘just’ being grateful for ‘things’ that the mind is mechanically forced to churn out.

Contemplate feelings within feelings

Even gratitude is also a variation of feeling, which ebbs and flows according to the situation. Rather than forcing myself to be grateful no matter what and making it an obligation to list things I’m grateful for, it was more helpful for me to watch the situation as it is. 

Frustrating time, grateful time, anxious time, angry time, happy time – they are part of human experiences. It is okay to feel them; see the temporary nature and let them be.

One emotion is not better or worse than the other, I can acknowledge all and not repress those I judge as ‘bad’ emotions. This is what I understood when I recently read Mahāsatipaṭṭhānasutta 10 (MN 10) which explains “contemplation of feelings within feelings”. I realised I was resisting the situation and feeling frustrated when my efforts didn’t bear my expected results.

Ajahn Brahm, a famous monk, mentioned that we sometimes feel guilty at ourselves for feeling guilty as we are ‘not supposed’ to feel that way as a ‘practising’ Buddhist. An unrealistic & painful way to live our lives.

This teaching echoes the Buddha who eloquently explained it:

Herein, monks, a monk when experiencing a pleasant feeling knows, “I experience a pleasant feeling”;

when experiencing a painful feeling, he knows, “I experience a painful feeling”;

when experiencing a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling,” he knows, “I experience a neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling.”

I was feeling physical pain, which resulted in wanting to remove the pain and frustration when I was unable to do so. I had unknowingly amplified the physical pain with unnecessary mental pain. When awareness of this situation arose and I was able to drop the mental pain, only physical pain remained – which wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t that bad either. 

My back’s condition has gotten better; I’m back to light treatment and a more physically active lifestyle since then. 

This experience taught me that the absence of gratitude does not automatically mean ingratitude or taking things for granted. 

Sometimes we may need to see things as they are, even when they do not fit in the ‘positive outlook’ that is repeatedly pushed on us. 

I am keeping my journaling practice, though it’s not reserved exclusively only for ‘gratitude journal’. But rather a blank space to document all kinds of experiences, reflections, and learnings. It brings about a wider life outlook for me than ‘just’ gratitude. 


Wise Steps:

  • Intentionally setting time and space for gratitude is generally a good habit. However, be careful of whitewashing situations with just ‘anything’ to be grateful for
  • Human experiences are rich and varied, encompassing positive and negative emotions – this is the nature of human experience
  • We do not have to force for ‘something’ to be grateful for, it’s okay to allow what we are feeling and see them as they are 
Suffering! How I Found Love In That S-word

Suffering! How I Found Love In That S-word

TLDR: Once you fall in love with suffering, you won’t have to suffer anymore. Here is why and how to go about doing it.

What? Have I read the title wrongly? Fall in love with my suffering? Why would I ever want to do that? Well, to begin with, we have misjudged and misunderstood suffering.

Recently, I was invited by the Singapore Buddhist Mission to speak on How Buddhism has transformed my life? Throughout the 45 mins, I noticed most of what I talked about was how I overcame my sufferings.

Sufferings come in many forms. 

“Lucky” for me, I’ve experienced many from the grief of losing my father, the guilt of not seeing my father for a year before he passed away due to my medical condition, go the physical and mental pain of my cancer treatments, I could go on and on, but that would make this article too depressing. So, why don’t I turn my sufferings around?

Suffering does not discriminate

If you take a closer look, suffering is an inevitability in life. I have not heard of anyone who has not suffered, whether it is physical or mental, we all suffer. It is bound to happen, and I’ve not heard of anyone immune to it as well.

All existence is Dukkha. According to the first noble truth in Buddhism, there is dukkha, often translated as suffering (though a sense of dissatisfaction is a closer meaning).

When I first came across the word dukkha, I didn’t pay much attention to it. 

I simply thought it’s true, and it makes sense, but I didn’t heed the advice as a warning. I mean, I have had my fair share of sufferings, and I dealt with them promptly. But I neglected to pay attention to the second noble truth, which said that our constant wanting and resisting causes suffering. 

What I failed to understand is my resistance to suffering when I’ve been warned. Can accepting the fact that bad things do happen in life reduce suffering? Apparently, it does.

It’s ok to not be ok.

Mended heart from suffering

Acceptance does not mean you are ok with it. But by reacting against the pain—resisting or rejecting it—we create unnecessary suffering. It doesn’t mean that you’ve chosen or agreed with what has happened to you. 

It doesn’t mean you like panic attacks, the side effects of cancer treatments, or suffering an injustice that has happened to you or someone else.

Rather, you’re choosing to allow it to be there when you can’t change it at that moment. To make space for it. To give yourself the patience to understand what’s going on, feel what you feel, or have experienced what you’ve experienced without creating unproductive anger or anxiety. 

The pain might still be there, but some of the “by-products” of the suffering will be alleviated.

Sufferings are to be embraced.

One of my strengths, or I personally like to think of as a strength, is I have the ability to go deep into my experiences and examine what is truly happening to me. My life experiences are like a school; I attend to each experience like a student in the class, waiting to see what is going on and what I can learn from it.

What I have learnt is that I haven’t become stronger after much suffering. I just feel more exhausted and weak, but I also feel more resilient towards suffering.

It’s like if I embrace every suffering, wouldn’t I get better at dealing with the unavoidable? Wouldn’t it make sense to embrace it rather than detest it?

Whenever I face any bad situation or problem that happens to me willingly and enthusiastically, it eases me into making better decisions. I feel less stressed out in dealing with it.

Suffering can be a valuable teaching.

Most of the time, we misinterpret suffering, thinking it comes from the world or the people around us. But it’s impossible for the world to cause you suffering if you don’t allow it. Also, suffering is a good thing, a kind of nourishment.

In order to be happy, you have to first find the meaning of happiness, and suffering becomes a catalyst for you to define it. It’s like using the dictionary – in order to understand happiness; you need to read up the definition of the word. 

You can treat suffering as nourishment, a kind of tonic for your life that activates your willpower and allows you to discover your own strength and clarify your doubts.

For instance, the side effects I suffered from cancer treatment reminded me to stop procrastinating and postponing the things I really wanted to do. It also helped me focus on the present and discover the meaning of life.  

Pain is certain, but suffering is optional.

External forces have always caused us much suffering. Although they can trigger our negative emotions, we forget that peace in the heart is also there. Our lack of awareness might be the cause of many of our sufferings, but it’s not like we can’t do anything about it. 

We might not be able to control what has happened to us, but we can choose how we respond to it. So, my point here is that no matter how horrible a situation may seem, we can still stay focused in the present moment. 

Being in the present moment helps us to become aware of our peaceful mental state within. We shouldn’t let bad situations rattle us into a corner and face defeat, thinking there is no way out of it. 

A bad situation could be an opportunity for something good.

Sapa looking for Opportunity

Sometimes, things aren’t as bad as we think they are. It just so happens that we’re conditioned by society to get what we want, and if we don’t get it, we automatically feel disheartened or disappointed. 

Bad things in life can also be a stepping stone towards good things that may happen in the future. 

I remember desperately wanting to secure a job which I was rejected. But that allowed me to apply and secure another job opportunity that was far greater and better than what I had expected. 

Suffering doesn’t belong to anyone.

Suffering does not belong to anyone

Suffering is only as bad as you want it to be. If I remove “me” from my problem, it will just be a problem and not “my problem.” Suffering no longer becomes personal; the problem is as it is. 

There are no good or bad experiences. An experience is an experience if you see it for what it really is. It only becomes good or bad when we judge it.

If I know something will be bad for me, it will be bad for me. I choose to suffer; then I suffer. It all depends on how we look at things. 

When we stop owning our sufferings with our egos, our sufferings will end. In Buddhism, phenomena are characterised by impermanence, no-self and dissatisfaction (dukkha). Suffering as taught by the Buddha, only occurs when there is an “I” (Self-identity), “Me” (Self-ownership), and “Mine” (feeling of a Self) due to our erroneous belief. 

No-Self, or anatta is the hardest to comprehend because it is a deep-seated belief that we own our thoughts, feelings and body when in fact we are more a slave than a master to these impermanent phenomena. 

We tend to attach ourselves to problems due to our egos. As a result, we make suffering a problem, my problem.

Every suffering will be worth it.

Suffering can be valuable if we can understand the underlying truth that suffering is the gateway to enlightenment. Although it does not mean we pursue suffering, it can help open the door to awakening if we become aware of it. 

Pigs can eat rotten food and still find it delicious. Lotus cannot grow without the mud, and enlightenment cannot be attained without becoming aware of the causes of suffering.

Only when we are aware, can we change suffering.


Wise steps:

  • By accepting that sufferings are inevitable and can’t be avoided, we can learn to embrace them as a catalyst for happiness.

  • Treat sufferings for what they are; they don’t belong to you or anyone.

  • Not every suffering is bad; we can choose to look at it differently and turn it into an opportunity leading to something better.

  • Sufferings are worth having only if they lead us to our own awakening.

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