The Origin of Suffering: What Makes Us Unhappy

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The present moment is never intolerable. What’s intolerable is what’s going to happen in the next four hours. To have your body here at 8 pm and your mind at 10:30 pm, that’s what causes us suffering.
Anthony de Mello

You now know what your pain really looks like. You see it from another point of view.

But a deeper explanation is needed.

Obviously, our generation has a big problem – our attitude towards life, the way we see things, what we focus on and think is most important is not right.

So something needs to be done. We need to find a way to alleviate that inner pain.

But to do that, we must first get familiar with the origin of this suffering, with all the things that make us upset, disappointed, depressed, stressed, unproductive, discouraged and lose hope.

So here is a list of what makes us unhappy and what form it takes in our daily life:

1. Ideals.

Most of the pain we experience, whether we realize it or not, comes from the fantasies we live in.

We create our own worlds, where there are certain rules, things to be done and said and events to happen. And every time that doesn’t go according to the plan (which, basically, means anything because we have no control over what might happen and can’t predict it), we panic.

2. Not wanting to be where you are.

We create a prison, we build its solid walls slowly through the years, and can remain there for the rest of our life if we don’t do anything about that.

No matter where we go, we want to be somewhere else right away. Either because we’re not contented with the current place and situation and think the problem is in them, or because someone else tells us about something better.

And that makes our present destination a nightmare, even if we’re swimming in the ocean of a tropical island or skiing in a top winter resort.

We’ll talk more about that prison later.

3. Struggle.

When we feel bad, we try so hard to destroy that emotion and feel better. We put effort into finding something to make us smile.
And when we eventually do (or should I say ‘if’ we do), we struggle to make it last.

So our whole life becomes a struggle. Pushing hard, interfering in the natural flow.

But we ourselves invented this fight. It’s fake. It lives only in our head and by trying too hard to succeed, find happiness, or else, we make it worse.

Here is what Leo says about that in his book “The Effortless Life”:

“We invent this struggle for many reasons: to give our lives meaning, to give ourselves a feeling of accomplishment, to dramatize our story (even if only in our own heads), or simply because this is the mode of thinking we’ve become used to.

Giving up the struggle isn’t always easy, but it is liberating. When you realize you don’t have to struggle with everything, life becomes so much more effortless.

Take the example of struggling with your young child when she won’t eat her vegetables. This struggle is unnecessary — forcing her to eat the vegetables accomplishes nothing. The child won’t like vegetables more because she’s forced to eat them. Instead, set the example of eating vegetables yourself, and find ways to make eating healthy foods fun for her. By making it fun, and letting go of the need to force her to eat veggies, you’ve let go of the unnecessary struggle.”

4. Seeking happiness in external sources.

There’s a void inside most people.

It’s been created by not being contented with who we are, not being happy with what we have, not being present and looking for something more, better, more exciting out there.

And we’ve always been trying to fill this void with something external.

Here are some of the fake sources of happiness people turn to:

shopping – buying stuff we don’t really need because it brings us momentous comfort and takes our mind away from our current problems;
food – a way to feel momentous pleasure, but then we immediately feel bad about ourselves;
a person – thinking someone else can make us feel good, obsessing over him, wanting to spend as much time with him as we can;
drinking;
gambling;
etc.

But it only makes the void bigger as we are okay for a while, but then feel even worse.

5. Holding onto the past.

Not letting what has already happened and can’t be changed go is something so bad, and yet so common.

Almost everyone does it to some extent.

Some people even live entirely in their past, not letting anything new happen to them, just spending their days going through stuff that happened a long time ago and has no importance in the present.

6. Refusing to accept.

One of the reasons for not being contented is our inability to accept things as they are, together with ourselves, other people, events and every little detail of our days.

And we try to change the unchangeable and control the uncontrollable.

Which only continues the struggle and increases our suffering.

7. Comparing.

Instead of seeing your positives, you focus on how much better other people look. You see that their house is more spacious, children smarter, bank account bigger, social life better, etc.

Which makes you unhappy with your life, even if you’re considered successful.

8. Not knowing what’s important.

Often we suffer because we don’t realize what’s essential.

We may want to be rich, but the rich are lonely.

We see all those people on TV that have won the lottery and want to be at their place, but studies show that they are even more miserable after having won the big check. They don’t really know what to do with all that money, take poor decisions on how to spend them, change themselves and their friends don’t see them in the same way.

9. Being a victim.

If you’re constantly asking the universe “Why me?”, then you probably think life is unfair, others are so happy and you’ll never be, or just take things too personally and make a big drama out of small things.

10. Worrying about what might happen.

Living in the future is another reason we live so unhappily. That’s why there’s a whole chapter for it later in the book.

11. Goals.

Living without goals may seem a bit too much for some of you, but what I mean with that item of the list is that goals are another version of living in the future, focusing on a result that’s not current, wanting something else and expecting it to become a reality.

Here’s how Leo summarizes it:

“These days, however, I live without goals, for the most part. It’s liberating, and contrary to what you might have been taught, it doesn’t mean that you stop achieving things.

It means that you stop letting yourself be limited by goals.

Sometimes you achieve a goal and then you feel amazing. But most of the time you don’t achieve them and you blame it on yourself.

Here’s the secret: the problem isn’t you, it’s the system! The goals system is a set up for failure.

Even when you do things exactly right, it’s not ideal because goals limit your possibilities. When you don’t feel like doing something you have to force yourself to do it. Your path is chosen, so you don’t have room to explore new territory. You have to follow the plan, even when you’re passionate about something else.”

12. Plans.

The same goes for them:

“Living without plans might seem foolish or unrealistic to most people. That’s fine. But if you want to be realistic, you should understand that the plans you make are pure illusions of control.

Many days, other things come up and the illusion of control is easily shattered. But some days we get lucky and our plans actually happen as we had hoped.

The more we embrace this chaos, the more we embrace the brilliant possibilities that might emerge. The more we try to control our day and actions with plans, the more we limit ourselves.”

13. Expectations.

It’s when you’re not happy with the person you’ve become and the things you do, because you have too big expectations of who you can be.

Or want your partner or someone else to do something for you, love you, be nice, ask you out, etc. You expect so many things from them, often unrealistic. And wait for them to do exactly what you imagine them doing. But people have their own vision of the same situation and it never meets yours.

You even ask life for more than it can give you. And become unhappy when you understand it has its limits, too.

14. Wanting to change.

Kids want to be grown ups, adults want to be young and careless again.
Single people desperately want a relationship, but those who are in one still complain almost all the time and wish for freedom.
The poor want money, the rich want more of it.

This means that changing your situation doesn’t prevent you from suffering, doesn’t make your desires go away.

So you need to change something on the inside.

What do you think?
Which of these makes you unhappy and how do you deal with it? What else can you add?

Lidiya K

Lidiya K

Author, blogger and podcaster in the fields of self-improvement and life hacking. Creator of Let's Reach Success.
Full-time freelance writer. Lifestyle designer.
Lidiya K

14 Comments

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  1. Hi – I like your writing but tell me, what is your generation? I am guessing it those in the 20’s? Certainly those of that age have grown up with some unique pressures: the pressures of consumerism, the psychological warfare of terrorism and counter terrorism, and the unrelenting complexity of the internet and the endless ‘updates’, texts and acceleration of change. Quite a challenge to find peace… with my best, Chris

      1. … Interesting you think consumerism plays the biggest role. I was in my 20’s as consumerism came in and I thought it was just a passing fad!! It was not just the consuming of endless products but advertised also changed from targeting social and economic classes to aiming for personality profiles and selling ‘designer’ identities to them along with the goods!

        1. That’t s what I meant.
          The point consumerism has reached these days is frightening.

          We’ve got too much of everything and we want more and more. There’s a hunger inside of us that doesn’t just want to try new things, it wants it all and knows no limits. And people either lose themselves in addictions trying to fill the void inside or kill the pain (which only gets worse, of course, as they use outer sources to seek happiness), or find a way to reach some state of mind where they choose less over more, thank for what they already have, form some habits that keep them in control, focus more on their dreams and the people they love.

          And yes, I say consumerism plays the biggest role. You mentioned the Internet, too. It itself is just a source of information and connection. But we don’t just use it, we do it without any limits. We are now online 24/7 and no satisfaction will ever come out of this anymore.

          1. I think you show great awareness. I agree that the internet is neutral but I think it has the effect of amplifying any ‘virtues’ or ‘vices’ we may have. Psychological addiction has run rampant on so many levels and in so many ways. I feel we could chat for a while on this subject, so I will just wish you good fortune in all your valuable work…

  2. Thats an interesting point about goal setting. But maybe a person feels limited by goals because they are too small, too specific, or not capturing the imagination enough. If you have no goals, how do you plan what your next move will be, and what you will be working towards?

    1. Many whose goals are specific still fail every day. The problem is that we focus too much on the goal itself, try to plan every single detail, to prepare for everything, and while doing that we worry we may not do it in time, or at all. We compare ourselves to others who have already achieved it, we have an ideal in our heads of what the final result looks like. And we focus on that too.
      Sometimes it helps, but it’s mostly self-destructive behaviour and we sabotage our own success.
      That’s why letting go of goals and plans helps people who have issues with anxiety, too many expectations and have failed many times. It’s like a new approach. Which focuses more on why we do something, appreciating what we already have, being absolutely present and not thinking about past or future events, being one with our current activity and eliminating distractions.
      That means no goals, but we still work on what we think is essential. Only this time we do it consciously, are more motivated and can stay consistent.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  3. I guess one of these reasons is a biggie that personally resonates with us. For me that’s ‘seeking happiness in external sources’. Sometimes we feel a need to escape from our reality and find happiness outside ourselves. I think the Facebook culture of escaping and seeking virtual contact is a cycle of pleasure and suffering. Great post Lidiya, a very accomplished list

    1. Thank you.
      And I didn’t really reveal the solution here, as it’s in the next chapter in the book.
      It’s simply to live in the present moment – to be right here, right now and leave everything else behind. I think that’s the answer to all of the reasons that cause suffering which I listed in the post.

  4. Every single item on that list used to hold me back, but especially the worrying, expectations of others, constantly comparing myself, and living in the past. It’s amazing to me how much of my life I previously spent as an unhappy victim, as if I had no control when in fact I have all the control.

    One of the ways I’m happier is with less stuff. I went into debt with “retail therapy” and that was a challenging habit to break. Once I realized it wasn;t working is when I was able to quit. There is way too much focus on consuming and even though it’s slowly changing, I know it will take a while to become a global way of life.

    Kudos to you for figuring this out at a relatively young age. I meet people who are much much older that somehow live by that list and are eternal victims. If only they could realize they have the power to be happpy inside.

    1. Yeah, most people live in denial about all of the things I’ve mentioned here.
      But it all starts with awareness. And then slowly developing healthy and successful habits.
      Thanks for reading my post and sharing your story. You’ve come a long way.
      Best wishes 🙂

  5. In a nutshell: a lot of suffering comes from not living your “now”, exactly like the opening quote said. Whether it’s past or future, plans or regrets I create my own suffering most of the time.

    I “lost” several thousand dollars because of lately decision of SNB. I was angry. Then I prayed for those who suffer and it brought me down to my present moment. Nothing has really changed in my situation, just the bank estimation of my mortgage. The relief was instantenous.

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