Conditional happiness and conditioned misery
In “Awareness: Conversations with the Masters,” Anthony De Mello says that the first step toward happiness is to realize that you don’t want to be happy.
That last made no sense. Me, not want to be happy?
Then he explained.
Then I got it.
This is my way of explaining that to myself. You are free to listen in.
People are willing to be happy, he explains, but only conditionally. “I’ll be happy, but only if I get this. I’ll be happy, but only if they do that.”
People don’t want to be happy. They want what they want, and they’ll be miserable if they think it will get them what they want.”
People believe that conditional unhappiness is beneficial.
We think that because we’ve been taught to use unhappiness to control ourselves.
We’ve learned to punish ourselves to help ourselves. We’ve learned to torture ourselves to control ourselves.
De Mello says:
All I can do for you is help you to unlearn. That’s what learning is all about where spirituality is concerned: unlearning,
I’ve learned how to be conditionally happy. Now I need to unlearn it and learn just to be happy.
If I write this blog post, then then I will be happy.
No, if I write a post every day, for many days, then I will be happy.
No, I’ll only be happy if I write very high-quality posts in great abundance and people love them.
I’m willing to be conditionally happy. Why not be unconditionally happy?
If I can set the conditions for happiness, why not remove those conditions?
I’m not alone in wanting only conditional happiness.
If my wife/husband/son/daughter/friend stops doing that annoying thing, then I will be happy. Well, maybe not happy. Perhaps just a bit happier. Because they have this other annoying thing that they do. If they stopped doing all those things, then I’d be happy.
If my co-workers stop doing stupid things, then I’ll be happy.
If Donald Trump loses(or wins) the election, I’ll be happy.
In every case, De Mello points out, we are holding happiness hostage. Being happy does not depend on any of these things, so why make a condition? We can just be happy.
I can be happy whether or not I write a blog post.
You can be happy whether or not the people around you are acting like idiots.
We can even be happy while Donald Trump is…well, it’s a stretch, but it’s possible.
De Mello says:
Some people make awakening a goal. They are determined to get there; they say, “I refuse to be happy until I’m awakened.”
That was me. Unhappy until I’m awakened.
How did we learn
I came to believe that conditional happiness (and unhappiness) was useful.
I learned to believe that the way to get what I want is to hold my happiness hostage—to refuse to be happy unless I get it.
I’ve used what you might call purposeful unhappiness to get what I want.
Everybody says it. No pain, no gain.
Want gain? Have some pain.
We who want to improve believe that pushing ourselves is the route to success. We could push ourselves joyfully, but that’s not what we’ve been taught. We’ve been taught to torture ourselves to get better.
We don’t think about it as torture.
Torture: the action or practice of inflicting severe pain or suffering on someone to force them to do something
Want to get better? Make yourself suffer for not doing it.
Our parents taught us initially. We continue to refresh the lessons.
How we learned
It started this way.
When we did something that our parents didn’t want us to do, they physically stopped us. They controlled us. And at the same time, they showed unhappiness or even anger.
Like Pavlov’s dogs, we associated their emotions with control. Soon they didn’t have to touch us. They could give us a stern look or talk to us in a certain tone of voice. They conditioned us to obey.
My parents did it to me. I did it to my kids. Sorry, kids.
Kids become conditioned to respond to the unhappiness of adults around them.
That’s a starting point.
Teaching the happy to be unhappy
Children are naturally happy. They will happily track mud into the house, happily throw food on the floor, happily bop another kid on the head. When parents reprimand kids for such behavior—and they should—they demand that the kids demonstrate understanding.
Words are not enough.
If a parent remonstrated a happy kid for tracking mud into the house, and the kid apologized but remained happy, most parents would assume (maybe correctly) that the kid didn’t get it, and the apology was not genuine.
The real test of understanding would be: did they track mud in the next time? But no one can wait around for that. So parents train kids to show them that they understand. Unhappiness after a reprimand is acceptable evidence of understanding.
So kids are trained.
“Wipe that smile off your face!”
“This is no joke.”
When parents deem that some level of expressed unhappiness is insufficient evidence of learning, then—with the best of intentions—and I mean that without irony—parents punish us. If they were to punish us—say by sending us to our room or depriving us of a favorite toy or activity—and we did not demonstrate enough distress, they’d find something that made us more unhappy.
The greater the offense, the greater the required degree of misery. All for our own good.
What our parents learned, they taught. They’d learned to punish by being punished. And by punishing us, they taught us to punish ourselves.
Anticipating reprimands and punishment
They taught us to anticipate their reprimands and punishment and restrain ourselves from doing things they wanted us not to do.
We learned to reprimand ourselves before the fact and punish ourselves—with guilty feelings—after the fact.
That’s what was done to me. And that’s what I did to my kids. Sorry, kids. If I ever have more kids, I’ll do better.
Do unto ourselves
We learn to get ourselves to do things that we find hard to do by doing to ourselves as was done unto us. We might start by asking ourselves. We might argue with ourselves. And if that doesn’t work, we threaten ourselves, criticize ourselves, punish ourselves, torture ourselves until we do what we want. We might also promise ourselves a reward. But for most people, threats, criticisms, and punishment are important motivators.
If we reach a satisfactory level of success—whatever that might be—we’re happy to relax into a routine. And why not? Things are good.
The road to greater success
We know that the way to greater success is more self-threats, self-criticisms, self-doubt, and punishment. We’ve had enough, thank you very much. And please don’t criticize us for not wanting to go further!
If our level of success is not satisfactory, we know why. We didn’t threaten ourselves enough. We didn’t force ourselves enough. Not enough torture. Not enough gain? Must have been not enough pain.
I believe that there is another way.
That way is through awareness and understanding.
De Mello says:
That still leaves us with a big question: Do I do anything to change myself? I’ve got a big surprise for you, lots of good news! You don’t have to do anything. The more you do, the worse it gets. All you have to do is understand.
What can I say here?
I like what De Mello says:
One cannot say anything about happiness. Happiness cannot be defined. What can be defined is misery. Drop unhappiness and you will know. Love cannot be defined; unlove can. Drop unlove, drop fear, and you will know.