If I could send a message back in time to my teenage self, I’d write her this message:
Let go of searching for happiness.
And since I know she’d be surprised to read it, I would write “TRUST ME” in big letters on the back of the paper for her to find, too.
Learning to let go of seeking happiness has been a process I never thought I’d have to go through. But little by little, it’s become one of the more meaningful things I’ve ever done for myself.
Let me explain why.
The Pursuit of Happiness Was Making Me Unhappy
From a young age, I (like many other Americans) had been bombarded with messages that buying certain things would make me happy. No matter whether it was about a certain toy, particular brands of clothes, makeup, or other material possessions, the idea behind it was loud and clear: if I could simply change something about my outside, I’d feel better inside.
Of course, it was never said in such explicit terms but what else could the images of beautiful people—laughing together, being intimate, and enjoying each other’s company—mean?
Although I was already a pretty happy-go-lucky kid, I distinctly remember trying to imagine feeling as good as those pictures looked, and of course I wanted that more. “More of a good thing could only be a good thing, right?” I thought to myself.
This seemingly innocent query unwittingly found its way into other parts of my life as I grew older. I began associating eating indulgent food with states of happiness—along with drinking alcohol and seeking attention from men. I also started falling into what Brené Brown calls the “perform, please, perfect” trap, thinking that my happiness rested on whether or not other people approved of me and what I was doing.
Quite frankly, it got exhausting. I started to feel lost. Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, this was also around the time I also found myself traveling alone through the country of Myanmar at 24 years old, six months after I’d been dumped by a boyfriend that I’d had no intention of leaving.
A fellow traveler had given me his well-loved copy of the book The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation by Buddhist monk Thich Nat Hanh. As I sat on a crowded bus, rattling its way from one destination to another over a dusty road, I quietly read the Hanh’s retelling of a Buddhist parable called “Releasing the Cows.” The paraphrased version of the parable goes a little like this:
A distraught farmer came up to the Buddha and a group of monks after they finished eating lunch. The farmer asked them if they had seen his cows. They said no, and he was upset. “I had twelve cows, and now they’re gone,” he complained. “The insects also ate up all my crops. I’m suffering so much and am so unhappy.”
After the farmer left to continue searching for his cows, the Buddha turned to the monks and said, “My dear friends, you might not realize how lucky you are because you have no cows to lose.
If you had too many cows, you would be busy taking care of them. You would think they were important for your happiness and that you needed more and more cows.
Instead, the cows could be the obstacles that prevent you from being happy. To truly be happy, you must learn to release your cows.”
As if the Buddha had dropped the proverbial mic, this analogy (and a number of other powerful teachings I read that day) sent me reeling. I started to realize that my constant external search for happiness was coming at the expense of having compassion for the depth and breadth of all of my emotions.
Cow by Cow
Though I wish I could say that from that day forward, I’ve been able to adhere to this concept with enlightenment and wisdom, it has still been a rocky road.
I still get wrapped up in plenty of fantasies about how purchasing new items, changing my appearance, or winning the lottery will make me happier in life, but at least now I’ve started to identify these ideas as potential “cows” that I don’t actually need to accumulate anymore.
If you’re looking to put this principle into action in your own life, thankfully you don’t need to be newly-single in a foreign country to start analyzing your values.
Here’s a few good ways to start today:
- Find some quiet time to reflect on what is truly meaningful to you. Are there ways you could increase your attention and satisfaction toward your internal states, particularly ones that don’t involve spending money or require outside stimulus? Remembering that we have just as much to gain from staying curious about our own emotions can be a wondrous thing in itself, especially when you remind yourself that happiness isn’t our natural state.
- Consider: are you spending money or acting in ways that you’ve inherited from those around you, but aren’t congruent with your personal values? What are some habituated actions you have assumptions toward? Carl Richards has an interesting exercise for you to try by tracking your spending for 30 days, asking whether each purchase is in line with your values, then “reinvesting” any freed up money toward what you truly do care about. Once you resolve to bring these more into alignment, you might find yourself better able to let go of your quest for happiness and therefore find something more meaningful instead.
- Simplify. Ask yourself what you can get rid of in order to have less temptations all around you. You can unsubscribe from sale emails and unfollow corporate accounts on instagram. You can get used items instead of new ones. Don’t forget about clearing out blocks of time on your schedule, letting go of to-dos, and simplifying your online life, too.
Getting More From Less
Ironically, I think that even if I magically got a chance to tell my teenage self to stop searching for happiness, she might not have heeded my warning. Perhaps she would have suffered a little less, but she would still have had to learn the hard lesson on her own.
Personally, it’s something that I’m still trying to practice and remember each day, and I feel more peaceful knowing that the lesson I’m learning is in the struggle, not the end result.
What has been your experience with seeking happiness? What have you learned?