In part 1 of this blog, I explored our Happiness dilemma by using three recent data points: an interview with the U.S. Surgeon General, a newly published book, Anxious Generation, and the Annual World Happiness Report.

Using some of these insights, I explored how and what we consume with smartphones and social media contributes to our happiness dilemma.

In this post, I focus on how we might rethink “happiness” and cultivate the mind of satisfaction.

A Whole View

Much of our dilemma surrounding happiness begins with our definition and approach to it. Like so many other societal ills, the more we talk about it, the less we seem to impact it.

We require a different approach. Rather than a binary view of happiness as a problem to fix, I suggest viewing it as a larger phenomenon, one pointing us to a different way of thinking.

Beyond Binary

Binary thinking leads to an important—often invisible—source of unhappiness: separation and false dichotomies. Grasping onto binary views creates permission structures to separate and disconnect in ways that can isolate us and “otherize” people and situations.

We all think in binary terms, but the Western mind reifies it, adding layers of meaning and creating conceptual dichotomies that cordon off the critical aspects of any experience.

For instance, to become happier, we focus on problems to fix, eliminate, or do things that make us happy without ever becoming intimate with the nature of our suffering or unhappiness. Much of the recent awareness around “toxic positivity” isn’t because positive thinking is bad: It’s when people believe that negative thoughts about anything should be avoided.

Rather than viewing happiness as a binary problem to fix, we can appreciate the experience as an interdependent whole that includes suffering. The shadow reveals the light, the pleasant emerges from the unpleasant, and dissatisfaction offers insights into our satisfaction.

This Paradox of Happiness

A central tenet of ancient wisdom states that the more you chase happiness, the more elusive it becomes, advising us not to pursue happiness directly.

Additional ironies reveal that happiness arises when we look beyond ourselves and become more intimate with and accept discomforting, even painful emotions. This works against our American ethos, which demands a right to comfort.

Our views of success, fame, pleasure, and fortune are all linked with expectations of ease and comfort and convenience. Happiness is then conflated with materialism, pleasure-seeking, hyper-individualism, and comfort.

Eric Weiner, the author of “The Geography of Bliss,” clarifies this thinking:

There’s an assumption that if you’re American, you’re wealthy and you’re high tech and you’re successful; you should be happy. There’s a lot of data that shows that the greater your expectations, the less you’re happy. (NYT: 3/20/2024)

Technologies such as smartphones elevate and distort notions of “comfort and discomfort,” which can confuse one’s views and attitudes.

Smartphones and social media prevent us from tapping into the full range of human experiences by flooding us with toxicity, screening out the negative, or forcing us into false dichotomies where we bounce between the pleasant and unpleasant.

Either way, we lack a healthy relationship in which there is a full range of experiences.

Any kind of growth first depends on expanding beyond comfort zones and inviting the necessary pains to liberate us from outmoded assumptions. And yet, discerning the truth, though painful, will cultivate awareness, insight, and satisfaction.

Finding Fame, Followers, and Fortune

As detailed in part 1, Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has sounded the alarm about the level of unhappiness among the younger generation. Beyond the younger generation, we’d all be wise to heed this clarion call. The techno-driven rewiring of our brains is cause-for-pause, even for the most mindful among us.

We are all affected by changing priorities and attitudes about our notions of beauty, success, fun, “friends,” connections, and what it means to be young and find satisfaction, to name a few.

Murthy states this in alarming terms:

“I ask [young people] what hustle culture is telling you success is,” he said. “They say some version of fame, followers, and fortune. I have had too many young people say what they feel like they’ve really got to do right now is build their brand. And they don’t say that ironically.”(Guardian:3/19/2024)

To paraphrase, the ethos here is clear: What we have to do “right now” is “build our brand” to achieve “fame, followers, and fortune.”

One can feel the urgency of this declaration. This online get-rich-quick, self-focus, and instant gratification culture has captivated our imaginations these past 15 years. We’ve succumbed to a narrow view of success and satisfaction—a hedonic rather than eudemonic view of happiness.

Hedonic Happiness

Hedonic pleasure is like a sugar high. Its fleeting pleasure inevitably causes disappointment. To ensure constant pleasure, we persist in seeking hedonistic activities. The activity—not our intrinsic motivation—keeps us stimulated or in pleasure mode.

Most people who seek this “pleasure-centric” comfort are attracted to an easier life, need certainty, or require assurances begin to realize how such a life is rooted in the avoidance of discomfort.

We need a different definition of happiness—eudemonic happiness, deep satisfaction, or sukha (Pali and Sanskrit)—to take us the distance.

In Buddhist text, “sukha” is contrasted against “preya,” or transient pleasure. The pleasure of “sukha” has an authentic, lasting state of happiness within a being. Sukha comes from an awakened view we bring to life, understanding the interconnected nature of reality and happiness.

Happiness scholar Arthur Brooks describes the effort, discipline, and focus required to create sustained satisfaction in his book Build the Life You Want: The Art and Science of Getting Happier.

Brooks also shares that the secret to satisfaction is “wanting less.” Cutting our cravings is an idea taken from the Buddha’s first teaching and is best exemplified in a mindset that embraces the Eight Worldly Winds.

Eight Worldly Winds

The Buddhist teaching of the “Eight Worldly Winds”—the Lokavipatti Sutta—refers to a set of four pairs of opposite habitual attitudes or desires that can undermine happiness and inner peace.

Praise and blame,
gain and loss,
fame and disrepute,
pleasure and sorrow come and go like the wind.
To be happy, rest like a giant tree in the midst of them all.
­ — The Buddha

The Lokavipatti Sutta—or Eight Worldly Winds [1] —highlights the transient and ephemeral nature of worldly desires and attachments. These fleeting egoic desires cause individuals to experience a rollercoaster of emotions as they fluctuate between each pair of concerns.

These fourfold dichotomies are viewed as the constant cycle of hope for the pleasurable and fear of the unpleasant that spins us without end. When we only look for what is pleasant, we experience its opposite. As Carl Jung says, “What you resist persists, and what you fight, you get more of.”

The Eight Worldly Winds always blow ferociously, creating confusion about life. We must remain vigilant, knowing that we, too, tend to be influenced by them. With practice, this sutra supports developing a view of impermanence, the changing nature of reality. It encourages slowing down and letting go of attachments to live into our experiences without identifying with them.

I’ll briefly explore the four pairs of worldly concerns, focusing on how this framework might explain some of the push and pull of our online habits and culture. With this framework, we can discover and examine our motives and clarify deeper questions of “why.” We will also discover our attachments and learn to cultivate non-attachment to experience the impermanence of reality.

How might these winds affect you? This framework offers reflection, contemplation, and meditation during setbacks, upsets, or loss:

1- Gain (Success) and Loss (Failure):

  • Gain refers to acquiring material possessions, wealth, status, or success that individuals perceive as desirable or beneficial.
  • Loss refers to losing or failing to achieve material possessions, wealth, status, or success that individuals identify with.

Attachment to gain and fear of loss can lead individuals to measure their self-worth and happiness based on external possessions, successes, or achievements.

A shift in focus from “achievement” to “accomplishment” can connect us with internal fulfillment (accomplishment) rather than an external standard (achievement) often imposed on us.

The attachment to external standards fosters feelings of insecurity, greed, and competitiveness, preventing individuals from cultivating inner contentment and fulfillment. One moment, things are hopeful, and the next, things are depressing. In either case, we are anxious.

Finding any balance or equanimity requires understanding how events are interdependent. Equanimity arises when we renounce the illusion of control.

Letting go” of control brings awareness to our “holding on.” We let go of identifying our self-worth with material possessions or relationships. We learn to release attachments and practice non-attachments.

Joseph Goldstein describes non-attachment as “simply not holding on, not grasping, whereas detachment implies a distancing from experience, a pulling away, a stance of someone who is being detached,” which occurs as indifference.

With non-attachment, we fully experience situations, enjoy our lives, and remember that our situations are always changing and interconnected. Gains and losses are not always what they appear to be at first glance.

In this short video, Alan Watts reveals that because of the “interdependent and complex nature of reality, we shall never know what happens is good or bad; because we never know what the consequences of misfortune, or the consequences of good fortune.”

2- Fame (Status) and Disgrace:

  • Fame refers to gaining recognition, reputation, or renown in society for our achievements, status, or contributions.
  • Disgrace is the loss of societal reputation, respect, or esteem because of our actions, mistakes, or failures.

With this pair, we are obsessed with fame and afraid of our own insignificance.

Attachment to fame and fear of disgrace can lead individuals to prioritize external validation and social status over inner values and ethical conduct. This pair of concerns focuses on “status” and on how society views us.

Our preoccupation with our social image fosters feelings of pride, vanity, and insecurity, obscuring our ability to cultivate humility and authenticity.

Brand and Being

In whatever way we know ourselves, we can transcend any fixed identity beyond any image. Today, with social media and a thriving influence culture, many believe that developing personal branding is vital—even before discerning who we are as beings.

It is vital to understand the purpose and limitations of a personal brand, which reduces and externalizes our whole being as an object of consumption. A personal brand is an asset to optimize, not an authentic being to realize:

  • Brand: presentation or appearance, as in our reputation to others that remains consistent within a consensus.
  • Being: character or wholeness, much like the integrity of our personal histories, principles, and practices as we grow and develop.

Lee Tilghman started a healthy food blog in 2010 and became a brand and influencer shortly thereafter. She has since left “influencing” only to discover the perils of conflating her brand with her being.

Social media rewards extremes and obsessions … My body was my business card, and I had been afraid of gaining weight. It wasn’t just about what I was promoting but what I was hearing and receiving online, too.

College Admission’s Coach, Sarah Bernstein, sees personal branding as “cutting corners on self-discovery” just when young adults are learning about themselves:

Like a corporate brand, the personal brand is meant to distill everything you stand for (honesty, integrity, high quality, low prices) into a cohesive identity that can be grasped at a glance. It pressures … students to define themselves at a moment when they are anxious to fit in and yet changing all the time.

Educator and brand designer Debbie Millman argues about the limitations of the “personal brand” mindset:

to be a brand takes all of the sort of glorious humanity out of being human. You become this manufactured thing. And all the things that are so wonderful about being human, changing our minds, being messy, being inconsistent, all of those things are the things brands try to avoid being.

Cultivating an image with integrity requires perspective and a grounded self: How will fame or the fear of losing fame guide our actions, relationships, and activities?

Developing awareness and humility strengthens an authentic foundation to transcend fame and infamy.

3- Praise and Blame (Censure):

  • Praise refers to receiving recognition, approval, or admiration from others for our actions, qualities, or accomplishments.
  • Blame refers to being criticized, disapproved of, or denounced by others for our actions, qualities, or failures.

Although fame and disgrace (#2 above) deal with social status, praise and blame are more personal. We constantly need validation, and if not, we will begin to doubt our worth. When we are not searching for praise, we are busy trying to cover up our mistakes so that we don’t get caught.

Attachment to praise and fear of blame can undermine our authenticity and integrity. This attachment to external validation perpetuates a cycle of seeking approval and avoiding criticism, hindering individuals from cultivating self-awareness and inner confidence.

However, the dangers of success are arrogance and pride, which are often deficiencies in humility, gratitude, and the wisdom of interdependence. We forget Alan Watt’s lesson (#1 above), which states that multiple conditions are involved in any situation (success or failure). There are many people and factors to be grateful for.

Absent this wisdom, our individualism focuses on “me” as the single cause of any situation.

Beyond Individualism

Transcending the cycle of success or failure (#1 above) supports expanding our view of self beyond a fixed individual identity, separate from others. We exist as a complex and changing process beyond any single characteristic.

We may be smart or intelligent, but we can also be creative, reliable, and caring. All of these, plus so much more, support a complex, changing being. We can embrace our whole being without getting too caught up in any quality we over-identify with.

Once we expand our being, we can stand securely in who we are and invite and accept feedback and criticism on our qualities, knowing that we are more than any single aspect. As complex changing beings, no single quality or experience is fixed or defines us.

4- Pleasure (Pleasant) and Pain (Sorrow):

  • Pleasure refers to pleasant experiences, sensations, and emotions that individuals seek to attain or prolong.
  • Pain refers to unpleasant experiences, sensations, and emotions individuals reject, avoid, or seek to eliminate.

When we achieve happiness, fear arises, for we are afraid to lose this joy. Attachment to pleasure and aversion to pain can lead us to chase fleeting pleasures while resisting or denying experiences of discomfort or suffering.

A big source of ping-ponging the pain-and-pleasure cycle involves navigating the boredom–stimulation treadmill.

Boredom is the feeling of being uninterested in one’s current situation. It is unpleasant, and we strive to escape it. Boredom arises because of an “addiction” to stimulation. Often, we respond to it by “staying busy,” which only feeds this addiction.

From a Buddhist perspective, there is nothing boring about our experiences. Tuning in, becoming curious, and noticing the details cultivate a sense of wonder and exploration.

Culturally, boredom can be overwhelming. We want to be busy, exciting, and moving ahead. If we are seen as boring, we’ve failed, have an unfulfilled life, or have a dull existence. Seeing beyond this view requires emotional courage to discover what nourishes us from within rather than relying on external stimuli.

Practicing stillness every day helps. Pausing before speaking and actions increase awareness to tune into details. Stillness centers our focus, expands our attention, and deepens our awareness.

With time, we begin to modulate between fascinating highs and depressing lows, finding a center. We become present to connect patterns, appreciate interdependence, and experience the details life has to offer.

CLICK TO ENLARGE

Recognize the Dance of Desire

How, what, and why we consume are vital ingredients in our recipe for satisfaction. As a wisdom coach and guide, I often help clients find a balance between the material, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of life.

Our current age offers abundant access to peoples, networks, cultures, values, fears, cults, misinformation, and an overwhelming array of seductions and cravings.

We were never conditioned to evaluate, absorb, and digest this level of access. Finding balance can even become a source of anxiety as we find ourselves navigating obsessions and extremes.

In our chase after happiness, we’ve discovered vast gulfs of awareness and understanding – unexamined motives, intentions, and desires – surfacing uncomfortable discoveries about who we are.

While we lack institutional guardrails and norms to navigate these chasms of chaos, we can use the eight worldly winds as a disciplined ritual to help us use life’s lessons to shape our happiness and gain clarity. The right balance of material, emotional, and spiritual desires and needs offers an ethos to cultivate a more sustained level of satisfaction for becoming whole.

Ethos vs. Ego

As a society, prioritizing an ethos of wholeness over the transient whims of the ego would require a rigorous ethical infrastructure to grapple with and seek to understand the consequences of our innovation.

At a personal level, embracing these four pairs offers one way to understand our ego’s cravings better and ground our motivation so that we are not suspectable to the winds of desire. Using this framework—the Lokavipatti Sutta—requires gentleness and remembering that each pair represents a spectrum.

Recognize that we are a small part of the dance of life, learning from the winds of change.

  • Gain (labha) and Loss (alabha)
  • Fame (yasa) and Disgrace (ayasa)
  • Praise (pasamsa) and Blame (ninda)
  • Pleasure (sukha) and Pain (dukkha)

At its core, the Lokavipatti Sutta encourages us to recognize the nature of reality and these worldly winds as impermanent and appreciate that they do not define us. Our reactions to them stem from fear.

Paradoxically, bringing awareness to and recognizing our fears invites deeper satisfaction. For the mindful, desirable things—as impermanent, transient, and perishable—don’t disturb their minds, nor are they repelled by the undesirable.

With practice, we can ask ourselves, “What is my intention here?” “How am I motivated?” “What aspirations do I want to create?”

Am I chasing praise, pleasure, gain, or status? Am I trying to avoid blame, pain, loss, or disgrace?

We can examine what arises from our fear and set our intention to respond wisely and learn. As we cut our cravings and embrace the winds of change, we begin to develop joy, confidence, and equanimity.

Reading Time: 13 min. Digest Time: 17.5 min.


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Tony Zampella is the learning designer at Bhavana Learning Group, which serves coaches, educators, and learning professionals and executives.

As an instructor, researcher, and designer of contemplative learning programs and practices, Tony’s work explores the human side of change by bringing wisdom to learning. His focus includes ontological inquiry, Integral meta-theory, and Buddhist psychology to sustain contemplative practice.