zen habits : breathe

External Sources of Happiness

Post written by Leo Babauta.

There was a time not too many years ago when I was addicted to cigarettes, junk food, TV, shopping, and more, while being unhappy and having relationship problems.

What was the common source of all these problems? I was unhappy, so I tried to find happiness in external things.

Let’s take food as an example, because it’s such a common symptom. I was unhappy, but I knew that food gave me pleasure — eating some cookies or French fries was pleasurable, so I felt good for a few minutes. This never failed to give me a little rush of feeling good.

Of course, after I ate them I felt guilty and unhealthy and bad about myself, and so I was even unhappier than before. And so the cycle would repeat: to feel good again, I needed to eat again.

This is a very common pattern that most of us have — we try to find happiness in people and things around us, instead of finding it within. And of course, the pleasure we get from these things is not constant, only temporary, and so our happiness goes up and down depending on whether these things are giving us pleasure right now or not.

You might not realize it, but it’s probably something you do in at least one area of your life. Let’s take a look.

Common Ways to Seek Happiness Externally

When I list these external sources of happiness, I’m not judging you or anyone else. Obviously I’ve done this many times and still do, and I think it’s something that every human does. That doesn’t mean we can’t change it, though, slowly and gradually.

Here are some ways people seek happiness from people or things:

1. Spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend. Such a common problem. We have this ideal of what a romantic relationship should be like, and expect our significant other to make us happy in various ways. We want them to be loving to us, to do romantic or sexy things, to show they care in a thousand different ways, to put our needs before anyone else’s (including theirs), to always be kind and considerate and respectful. This is a fantasy, of course, and in reality when you’re in a long-term relationship with someone, the fantasy will always break down. The other person has his or her own problems to deal with, and will get angry and sad and be rude sometimes, and not always the picture perfect romantic partner. What does this mean for our happiness? Well, when they are being loving and great, we are so happy! But when they are not, we are angry or depressed or disappointed. Why don’t they love us more? And so we feel we are not lovable and worry that they will reject us.

2. Addictions. Food, drugs, alcohol, video games, TV, something on the Internet, sex, porn. Each of these things gives us pleasure, at least temporarily, and so they are reliable ways to find a moment’s happiness. We might not be able to control our partners or children or co-workers or even our jobs, but we can control these things — if we want to eat, we usually can. If we want to smoke pot or have a beer, we usually can. Of course, these things only give temporary pleasure, and so when we aren’t partaking of them, we want them. We are not happy, because our happiness depends on whether we’re using these things or not. And so we go back for more, and so on.

3. Excitement and fun. This can manifest itself in many ways: people like to go partying, dancing, drinking with friends. Or on dates with people, or out on the prowl at a bar. Other times people seek excitement in adventure sports, or travel. There’s nothing wrong with playing sports or traveling, or going out with friends, of course. But the thing to notice is whether you’re looking for your happiness in these things. And when you don’t have them, are you unhappy? Because you can’t always have excitement every moment of your life, and when you don’t, your happiness will drop.

4. Work. If you are a workaholic, or addicted to being busy, you might be seeking your happiness from your work. Again, there’s nothing wrong with working, nor is there anything wrong with doing work you enjoy or even love. I do it, and I get satisfaction from it. But you should pay attention to what happens when you’re not working — is there a feeling of withdrawal, do you crave going back to it, is it the place where you’re seeking happiness? If so, then you’ll only be happy when you’re working, and unhappy when you’re not working.

What to Do About It

So this brings up two important questions:

  1. What do I do if I’m seeking my happiness in one of these external forms? How do I change it?
  2. Where do I find happiness instead?

We will get more into these questions as we continue this course, but for now, I’d recommend first noticing what your external sources of happiness might be. What gives you pleasure, makes you happy, and what happens when these things (or people) aren’t available to give you that pleasure? How do you feel?

Notice yourself as you seek these forms of pleasure. Notice when you are looking to your significant other for validation or happiness. Notice what happens when you don’t have them, and how your happiness might go up or down depending on what’s going on externally.

To find out where else we can go for happiness, we have to look at what might be more constant — external sources of happiness aren’t constant, and will be available some times and not available other times.

So what’s more constant? Life. You. Change. (Actually these are all the same thing.) And they are awesome. We are going to learn how to find the power of their awesomeness in every moment, and how this one skill will change everything.

For now, you might try yoga, exercise, or meditation. They are great ways of feeling good, and of learning to paying attention to the things that will bring us a more constant happiness — ourselves, and everything around us (no matter what those things around us are).

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