Emotions are transient in nature and constantly in flux, which means for the most part, out of our control. Another aspect of life that is mostly out of our control are the circumstances that we are faced with on a daily basis. Yet, for many, these are the very two things many of us base our happiness on: how we feel and our current situation.
Happiness, then, should not be an emotion we strive for, but rather a state of contentment in spite of our underlying circumstances.
Modern society would have us believe that happiness is a byproduct of more. More money, more success, more influence. But this pursuit of more is just another form of avoidance and comes down to one key aspect: we avoid uncomfort in pursuit of comfort.
Consciously or not, people engage in habits that they consider pleasurable—whether it’s scrolling on social media, working longer hours at their job, or through drugs and alcohol—as a way to distract themselves from unpleasant feelings. We have grown afraid of ourselves.
Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa pointed this out clearly when he said: Many people try to find a spiritual path where they do not have to face themselves but where they can still liberate themselves. In truth, that is impossible.
A common Buddhist practice is to allow whatever arises; uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations are welcomed and accepted as a natural part of being human. Paradoxically, by allowing them to be as they are, they diffuse on their own.
What if one took this idea further, and rather than just being okay with the presence of discomfort, one actually exposed themself to it, voluntarily?
Voluntary discomfort is a practice the Stoics were known for implementing in their own lives; from wearing minimal clothing during cold weather, fasting, and even sleeping on the floor.
In Letter 18 of Moral Letters to Lucilius, Seneca writes: “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’” Seneca goes on to say, “the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress”.
The Stoics were known to voluntarily put themselves in uncomfortable situations, not because they were masochists, but because they instinctively knew it would help them live better. They knew it would pay off when real challenging times occurred. They wanted to develop the ability to stay calm in adversity, cultivate a tranquil mind, and find authentic happiness.
Systematic desensitization is an exposure therapy used to help reduce anxiety, phobias, and even post- traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and, like the Sotic practice of voluntary discomfort, it involves intentionally exposing oneself to the very thing they fear most.
The research is clear: adverse events can lead to positive outcomes. Psychologists call this “post-traumatic growth.” Hardships can bring us wisdom, confidence to endure future setbacks, and help clarify meaning in one’s life, which in return, can create the conditions needed for authentic happiness.
We cannot rid ourselves of our problems completely, but if we can learn to bear our challenges in a skilful way, and be open to the realization that difficulties are a part of life, we will be better equipped to work through our challenges when they arise.
Happiness is not a feeling or destination but the process one takes to align themselves with their highest values in spite of how they feel and what challenges they might endure. There’s no better recipe for living than learning how to tolerate reality as it is. Putting oneself in uncomfortable situations helps to build the capacity to bear more in the future.
This might seem like a Herculean effort, and to that, I share the story of “The Choice of Hercules.”
One day while Hercules was walking, he came upon a fork in the road. Unsure which path to take, he began to contemplate. Suddenly two figures appeared. The first was a beautiful woman named Kakia who promised an easy path, one filled with all the pleasures of life, true and lasting happiness without hardships or struggle. While listening to the first woman, a second woman appeared. Her name was Arete. Arete was more blunt and warned Hercules that her path would involve a lot of hard work. Suffering and much tribulation would await him. Although there would be much adversity, Arete insisted that the true path of fulfillment in life was the overcoming of great obstacles. Hercules ended up choosing the path of Arete. Hercules went on to live a life of great hardships and struggle, facing it all with courage and self-discipline. After Hercules’ death, Zeus was so impressed with Hercules that he granted him apotheosis––a god in his own right––and Hercules went on to become the mythical hero many admired.
In short, this story depicts favoring a path of suffering over one of ease, not for the sake of suffering itself, but for the benefits overcoming hardships has to offer.
Similar to “The Choice of Hercules”, there’s a Chinese saying which states: “the extreme form of happiness produces sorrow.” To that, I offer the inverse to also be true: if extreme forms of happiness may lead to suffering, so too can suffering lead to happiness.