The Happiness Illusion

What gets you out of bed in the morning? Is it the thought of money, connection, status…or just caffeine? Whatever motivates you, it's some sort of hope, big or small.

Everything we hope for comes down to a longing for happiness, but happiness lies at one end of a spectrum. If we didn’t know sadness, how would we recognize happiness? Life constantly cycles through these and other ranges of emotion: security and anxiety, contentment and frustration, patience and anger. The reason we recognize any of these states is because they change into their opposite and then back again—over and over. That’s life.

It’s remarkable how much we resist this obvious truth. As a monk living in a community I always felt pressure to represent the monkhood in a positive light. I tried to always be happy and smiling. Sometimes it was genuine, but sometimes it was fake. It took me a while to realize this. In the process I understood that my chief concern was denial, not unhappiness.

The truth is that life can capsize at any time without warning. We find ways to stay upright, but it's a constant struggle. We wish for an end to the struggle, but it’s unrealistic. The day we can lean back in peace with dissatisfaction, unhappiness and sorrow behind us once and for all is pure fiction.

Buddha said we were all deluded. It's not hard to make the case. We read today's awful news and feel that we've lost some sort of pristine happiness, but when we look back honestly we see that it was never like that in the first place. Then we feel that the inevitable happiness we expect in our future is anything but inevitable. Looking for happiness in the rosy past or in the hopeful future only sets us up for disappointment. Everything that actually exists is now.

This inconvenient truth becomes more evident during dark periods such as the world’s going through today. The growing interest in mindfulness is no accident. It reminds us that the past is a memory and the future is speculation. Past and future are thoughts about reality but not reality. Focus on the present moment and you feel immediate physiological and emotional changes. Your breath deepens, your blood pressure stabilizes, your mood changes. It’s all documented but you don’t need to research it. Just do it and see for yourself.

These benefits are temporary of course—like everything—but they’re real. Spending a little time each day in the present moment reminds us of life’s ups and downs and gradually replaces the illusions of happiness with an understanding that it's fleeting. You shed expectations and emotional baggage. You become less judgmental of yourself and others. You get better at navigating life. You find balance.

Author: Stephen Schettini

Stephen Schettini is a former Buddhist monk and teacher of mindfulness. He lives near Montreal with his wife, life coach Caroline Courey (see

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