Can getting what we want make us happy?

Even if we are alone in an empty room with nothing to bother us, we are not content. What is the reason?

A Perspective on the Four Noble Truths

One quality that is generally accorded very little value in our society of consumerism is contentment

What is encouraged, rather, is material success; the accumulation of items which are there to fulfil our desires. We learn that life is to be lived in the pursuit of what we want. We mention this by way of introduction to the question: can getting what we want make us happy? Does it lead to contentment? 

Although we obviously go after what we want because we think that it is the thing to do, the way to be happy, at the same time there is a strong relationship between desires and dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction, discontent, is what causes us to desire a change in our situation; in fact, our dissatisfaction is in itself a desire for something other than what we have. 

On the other side, all and any desire can also be redefined as a particular dissatisfaction with our current situation. We want something that we don’t have and that we see as desirable, or we want to get rid of something that we have and that displeases us; we want to be somewhere else other than where we are, we want to have an experience other than that we currently have. If we weren’t dissatisfied, why would we wish for anything else? We never desire something we already have; desire is in itself a sense of dissatisfaction that we will try to assuage by getting the thing we want. The more we have desire, the more we are dissatisfied, and the more we are dissatisfied, the stronger our desire. They are intrinsically linked. 

What is the cause of our discontent?

We practically always blame the external situation for our unhappiness; seeing whatever form of misfortune that has befallen us as the cause of our discontent. For example, we are angry because we have suffered an injustice and we have been hurt, we are sad because we have been betrayed, or because we have lost something; we are exasperated by somebody’s infuriating behaviour. However, is it actually true that this kind of situation is the cause of our sufferings, our dissatisfactions?

Let us take a current example: the confinement that most of the world has been experiencing due to the coronavirus pandemic. The discomfort and distress that people suffer in this situation is almost palpable in the air at the time of writing. It has created not only dissatisfaction: many many people have gone through and are still going through what is genuinely deep psychological suffering; serious depressions, real anguish. 

Let us now put ourselves into the skin of another type of person who, at this same moment in time, is also suffering very deeply, though in rather different circumstances: a refugee in a camp in eastern Europe, without proper lodging, food or even basic amenities, cramped into overcrowded and unhealthy conditions, struggling every day just to live through the day. 

If we offer this refugee the opportunity to take the place of a person with an average living standard of living, in quarantine in Canada, will he or she suffer the same distress, the same dissatisfaction as the Canadian? No, of course not; on the contrary they will experience an immense joy and relief. 

If our situation were really to blame for our unhappiness, why would it be possible to face the exact same situation with two entirely opposite reactions? 

Let’s take a second example. Imagine a mother of five children who works full time: her fast-paced, rest-less life spent running here and there, solving crises and wiping tears, managing household tasks, homework troubles and professional jobs. 

What does she wish for most in the life? Peace. Silence. Solitude. 

Suppose we offer her this: peace, silence and solitude in a quiet room, without noise, without a telephone to ring, without television to play, without a computer to ping with its email notifications… without even a book to distract her from the pure happiness of being in a room alone with herself, with nobody asking her to do anything at all. 

Pure happiness? Yes… but for how long? 

It might take a few hours, or at the very most a few days, but after a certain time, her initial feeling of relief and happiness will transform into agitation, boredom, a discomfort that grows greater the longer she remains alone in the room. The quiet that at first seemed so peaceful now becomes oppressive, and she wishes for  nothing more than to get back to the noise, the action, the crying children and the tasks to accomplish, because remaining alone with nothing to do becomes simply intolerable.

These two examples, the example of the refugee and of the overloaded mother, illustrate two points. The first thing to understand is that the situation is never to blame for our unhappiness, because depending on the context, the exact same situation can be a source of relief and joy, or a source of deep unhappiness. The same life in confinement is for one person an imprisonment; for another, an escape from a much worse imprisonment. The same quiet room is a paradise which, with the addition of only time, is transformed into a hell. Thus, the exterior situation can never be said to be the true cause of our suffering; it is incorrect for us to lay the blame here. 

The second point that these examples illustrate is that searching to solve our dissatisfaction by going after our desire for something different or superior, can never be more than a temporary, superficial relief. Just as with the case of the overloaded mother, even the refugee will surely end up becoming dissatisfied with his situation in confinement in Canada if it continues long enough. 

Since the only way we know to solve our dissatisfaction is to assuage our desires in this temporary way, we are never able to see what is the true cause of our suffering. In fact, it is not caused by the lack of the object we desire, or the presence of the object we desire to get rid of – the cause is the desire itself, and as long as we continue to run after our desire, there will always be a new dissatisfaction that we will have to desperately try to assuage. 

 So what is the right way to end our dissatisfaction?

The Buddha famously said: ‘’Monks, both formerly and now, what I teach is suffering and the end of suffering.’’ 

Though there are many subtleties and much study we can do of all his teachings, the core attitude and practice is quite simple: it is to let go of the desires that are the true cause of our suffering, and thereby practice contentment; both on a material level and an emotional level.

Material Contentment

The first and simplest step in this is material contentment. When somebody decides to dedicate themselves to practicing Dhamma and becomes a monk, one of the first things they have to learn is to be content with little, to be content, in fact, with the strict minimum of material possessions which are necessary to maintain health and to have enough energy to meditate and concentrate. 

To this end, the things that a monk needs are food, clothing, a shelter in which to lodge, medication (as needed) and certain small accessories such as thread, needle, water filter and razor blade. The essential thing is to be able to differentiate between necessity and desire. It is not useful to deprive oneself of one’s health in the pursuit of extreme asceticism: on the contrary, the extreme austerities and self-torture advocated by certain sects and practitioners are rather harmful and  lend themselves neither to contentment nor to wisdom. The Buddha clearly rejected them, teaching the middle path instead. 

Nonetheless, even if a monk does not have at his disposition the appropriate place or conditions for practicing, this does not give him the ‘’right’’ to complain or become dissatisfied: no matter what his situation, he should practice contentment. Ajahn told us about one night when he had set up a tent to meditate on the seaside (in Thailand, where he was staying at the time). Falling asleep after a certain time, he woke up in the middle of the night with the bottom of his tent submerged in water, as the tide had come much higher up than he had imagined. At that moment, rather than being annoyed at finding himself completely soaked, he thought how fortunate he was to at least have this tent which protected him from mosquitos. Contentment is precisely this: to appreciate what we have, even if it is not much or not ideal. 

However, we should be careful not to confuse contentment with stupidity. It is not wise to remain in a situation that compromises our practice: if we do so, it is not because of contentment but because of poor judgment. In one Jataka story, a monk was criticised for his poor judgement after spending a rainy season outside, without shelter, under the rain and the wind. Some laypeople had promised to build him a hut in which to live, but due to some unforeseen circumstances, they were unable to build it as they had promised. When the monk finally returned to see the Buddha after the end of a miserable three months spent shivering outdoors in the rain, the Buddha asked him how his practice of meditation had progressed. The monk answered that, due to the inhospitable conditions, he had been unable to maintain deep concentration and his practiced had not gone very well. The Buddha, rather than congratulating him on his tolerance, reprimanded him instead for his poor judgement. Physically enduring discomfort never helped anyone to develop wisdom: the monk ought to have either constructed a hut himself, or moved to a neighbouring village to find shelter where he could meditate well. Instead of this, his Vassa had been more or less a waste of time. 

Therefore, to be content with what we have in material requires the wisdom to distinguish necessity from desire. 

Emotional Contentment

Sometimes (or rather, often) we may have perfect material comfort, but despite this, inside we are not peaceful or well. What is it that prevents us from being simply calm and happy, even (or especially) when we are alone with nothing and nobody to bother us? How do we managed to have such a troubled heart even if all our material needs are fulfilled? How does it happen that our mind becomes so thoroughly our own enemy?

It is because of this problem that it is not enough to simply take up a particular way of living or to give up some material objects of desire to remove the cause of our suffering. The ‘’middle path’’ that the Buddha taught as the way to end suffering lies neither in extreme self-deprivation nor extreme sensuality, and the entire path lies not in any external thing, but within our own mind. 

There are three main steps: all begins with the practice of sila  (morality) – without which nothing further will be possible. Morality means right-doing, in both speech and physical action, and having a right, honest and blameless livelihood. By doing only what is irreproachable, one removes the possibility of remorse and guilt for the future, and creates a clear and calm mind. 

Then, once the base of morality is established, the practice of meditation and sati (mindfulness) will permit us to train the mind out of bad habits. From here, effort in meditation leads into samadhi (concentration). This is the second step.  

It is then through right concentration that panna – wisdom – arises, which means that we will have right understanding; we will see and understand the nature of reality as it really is. This is the third step. Having wisdom and right thought, there is no place for a troubled mind. 

Conclusion: The Four Noble Truths

Finally, to put all this together, our life is filled with dissatisfactions and distress, great and small: this is what we call the first noble truth: the truth of dukkha, suffering. 

The cause of this suffering: our own desire; this is the second noble truth. 

Rather than trying endlessly to follow our desires and assuage our dissatisfactions, a monk practices for the end of suffering by removing the cause: to have no desire at all is the highest contentment. This is the third noble truth. 

And finally, the fourth and final noble truth is the path, the middle way to reach this end: the practice of morality and meditation in order to develop wisdom and finally uproot forever the desire that is the cause of all suffering. 

This is the solution that the Buddha saw and taught to all who aim to follow this path for the sake of wisdom and the end of suffering. 

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