Why We Like to be Unhappy

Admit it to yourself, if only as an intellectual exercise (it’s alright, I won’t judge): We like to be unhappy sometimes.

Now, before everybody fetches their pitchforks, let me offer a brief explanation. When I say that we like to be unhappy, I merely mean that unhappiness—like all other states of mind and emotional situations—has a hidden purpose, and gives some recessed corner of our lizard brains a kick that keeps us wanting more. In short, something about the act of being upset has fomented addiction. It doesn’t matter what the particular flavor of this upset is; it could be sadness, or anger, or even shame. We’re as neurologically addicted to feeling low as we are to euphoric states.

Upon first glance, this might seem ridiculous. Why would we like to be unhappy? Our lives, for the most part, are an elaborate dance intended to stave off those very feelings. Or so it would seem.

When we’re upset, particularly due to someone else’s carelessness or apparent faults, we’re often filled with a sense of righteousness. We might feel superior to somebody who insulted us, then go down the rabbit hole of planning even more severe insults to “teach them a lesson.” If we lost something dear to us, we might cling to the bittersweet flood of emotions that accompany our separation from the object. Even the act of feeling shameful or guilty can become an exercise in self-glorification, urging us to see ourselves as unworthy or unlovable creatures that must wallow in pity for ourselves.

The human brain is remarkably adroit at riding the waves of emotional experiences, both high and low. What both of these extremes offer us is a (perhaps temporary) boost to the self-image. When we’re gripped with pleasure, our minds are filled with the idea “I love this, I want more of it.” Likewise, when we’re in the depths of misery, our minds overflow with thoughts such as “Poor me, I hate this, I wish it were different.”

Who or what is this mysterious “I” that keeps intruding on experience?

As we can see from the examples above, the sense of “I” only intrudes once the event in question has come and gone. The inciting incident—eating ice cream, for example, or going through a breakup—almost always occurs without our sense of self turning inward. It’s only in the aftermath, when our brains begin to churn and digest their own contents, that we are beset with “I” talk.

This, in part, is why “we” like to be unhappy. The sense of self (or ego, if you prefer) loves fuel in any form, whether pleasurable or painful. It loves to be prized and loves to be a victim. It seeks out any and every experience it can, craving some anchor to reify itself and prove to you that it deserves the spotlight.

There’s no trouble with this on its own, of course. The nature of the self is one of grasping and constant conflict with the nondual nature of reality. In order for a self to exist, it must necessarily be in conflict with the world it perceives “around it.” The only trouble comes when we start to believe our “I” talk, solidifying it and paying it in the currency known as our attention. The worst thing we can do for painful self-talk is feed into it and treat it as an accurate map of reality. There’s a difference, after all, between skillfully attending to our moment-to-moment experience and drowning in the mental chatter of a highly emotional situation.

Eckhart Tolle has referred to this phenomenon as the activity of the “pain body,” which he likens to an entity siphoning energy out of us. While I think that even this concept lends too much reality to the unhappiness-craving element of our mind, it does vividly illustrate the fact that part of the human “wiring” eagerly responds to the fuel of negativity. When walking a spiritual path, we must not only rein in our desires—we must recognize and navigate, with utter equanimity, our tendencies to bask in pain and pity.

To wrap things up, and perhaps to avoid being hunted down and burned at the stake for such an absurd claim, I don’t believe that we inherently like to be unhappy. I do believe, however, that we have conditioned ourselves to believe that unhappiness and emotional valleys are things we deserve to suffer. Whether the brain follows this programming out of genuine guilt complexes or for a shot of dopamine, ultimately, doesn’t matter much.

What matters is that we remain aware of our most peculiar addiction, and we give it as much comfort and mindfulness as every other part of our experience.

If you’d like to learn a bit more about how we construct good/bad paradigms and imprison ourselves in them, check out my latest Youtube video.

It Begins and Ends with You

This post will be a short, but hopefully sweet, one. It will be about problems—seemingly the bread and butter of the human experience. So often in life we feel besieged by problems that arise from external situations and individuals. We feel that these problems are thrust upon us, and that we are forced to either respond to them or be crushed by them. The scope and severity of these external problems need not be considered—their mere existence is enough to trouble us. Even the idea that they might be on their way is troubling. And worse yet, there are too many for us to reasonably contend with.

Mounting bills, health scares, elections gone haywire, pandemics, scratched car paint, lost wallets. You name it, it’s either happened, happening now, or will happen. We cannot seem to outswim these tidal waves of troubles.

But at the center of these problems is the root fact that we have labeled them problems. And a problem, almost by its own definition, is fundamentally outside of us, pressing upon this delicate skin that we call a self. It is an external action threatening your internal state. So, through this lens, we can see that there is strict duality. There is the problem, A, affecting you, B. There is no unity, only contention. The problem must be dealt with in order for you to be happy.

Returning to our tidal waves analogy, however, it becomes apparent that even if we manage to find and bring about a satisfactory conclusion to our problem, we will soon be assaulted by another problem, another wave on the ocean. And thus we will go on, eternally finding, fixing, and being overcome by problems, always hoping, inwardly praying, that if we fix enough, we will find contentment and eventually reside in a state free of problems.

Now, reading that statement, you will probably see the absurdity of it on an intellectual level. Life is never “problem free,” right? You might respond by saying that life is a long process of improving aspects of our life to be as happy and comfortable as possible. But even in this situation, the only reward for such diligence is death. We cannot evade death, cannot intellectualize it or disregard it. So we see that even if we resolve all of our earthly problems, our bodies will never be able to endure for eternity.

What’s the solution, then? Sit around and let ourselves be overrun by troubles? No, of course not. When we’re hungry, we don’t need to debate whether or not it’s right to eat. When we see an animal with its foot stuck in something, we don’t need to question if we ought to help them be free. We would not consider these situations to be problems, only “events.” Why is that? Put simply, it’s because we’ve disabused ourselves of the illusion that we are a victim. We are living with the immediate, concrete reality of the situation. We do what must be done, not because we’ve made a decision to be righteous or free of problems, but because it’s what the situation asks of us.

There is no problem that should be divorced from this mindset. In fact, when properly seen, there is no event that we can even call a problem. As mentioned above, a problem requires a subject and object to function. Somebody must be harmed or troubled by something. In order to respond fully to life and make the best decision possible at any given moment, we must close the gap between the problem and the individual. There is no problem, there is nobody being harmed by one.

When we see the world in this way, dispelling any notions of victimhood or personal suffering, we are able to become one with our “problems” and see that they are simply the result of the world playing itself out. If we regard a situation as simply being the state of how things are, rather than a distortion of how our life “should be,” we are free to engage with it using our full attention and compassion.

The next time you catch yourself feeling like a problem has entered your life, take a step back and listen to the internal chatter of the one who feels wounded. “I can’t do this.” “I just want this to be over with.” “I hate this.”

Who is speaking to you? It can’t be you, can it? If it were truly you speaking, why would you need to verbalize your own thoughts… to yourself? Why would you need to narrate your genuine feelings? Wouldn’t you already know them all and internalize them?

But even this “victim voice” is not a problem. It’s like a snake—neither harmful nor out of place, unless we choose to pick it up and swing it around. Or worse yet, to believe that it is “us.” Let the mind chatter, let the body play out its drama.

As long as you accept it all, there’s no problem.

How to Stop Procrastinating (Now)

Procrastination is one of those seemingly inescapable pitfalls in the human condition. We all do it, in both trivial and grand ways, even though it doesn’t serve any outward purpose. It’s not quite the same as hesitation, which is fear-based, nor is it exactly rooted in laziness. We simply believe that we’ll do our particular task later. In light of this, I have a different idea of why we procrastinate. Fundamentally, procrastination is built upon the delusion that we will always have time available to us. It relies upon our ignorance of how reality functions. If you want to learn how to stop procrastinating, you’ll have to see through the concept of time itself.

What is Time?

This is an awfully heavy question for an article about how to stop procrastinating, but hear me out. Time is the “fuel” that allows our procrastination to keep running. When we procrastinate, we’re not denying that something needs to be done, we’re just waiting for a less boring, more inspired moment to do that thing. And the abundance of time is what allows us to feel safe and satisfied with that choice.

But at its core, what is time? Most physicists can tell you that time is a strange thing. We perceive time at a certain rate because of the nature of our brains and sensory organs. We “receive” objects at the speed of light, for example, which is why we’re able to see the past states of planets, stars, and so forth when we gaze up into the night sky. We’re not seeing those objects as they are now, but as they were. And the reason for this is the speed of information for an observer. “Time” would have to advance extremely rapidly for you to see how those celestial objects look in that very moment, from the same distance.

If we want to stop procrastinating, we must find a new relationship with time itself.

This is also the reason we can travel “into the future,” but not into the past. Simply put, there is no past. There is no future, either, but we can “travel there” by accelerating to absurdly high speeds, or by simply living. Every moment, we are theoretically “entering the future.” Once again, this is because the observer (you) will be moving to a different location in spacetime.

So time is not a resource, but an explanation of an absurdly complex phenomenon of perception. We cannot bottle up time or pay for things using it. It does not exist independently of us, the observers, because it relies on our perception to function in the way we know it.  

As you can tell by now, I’m a huge nerd for this stuff. If you’re interested in learning more about the vast strangeness of time, here’s a great Wired interview with Sean Carroll.

For now, however, let’s boil it down to a simple truth: perception is the irreducible factor in our perception of time. We cannot exist independently of time, it is woven into us. Because of that, there is no past and no future—they are both contained within us in the present. When we think of some future deed, it is done in the present. When we reflect on the past, we do it through memories in the present.

The truth is, we are always here, always now.

Stopping Procrastination in the Present

When we see through the veil of time as a “river” that pulls us from the past to the future, allowing us ample time to perform our tasks, we are filled with renewed vigor to get things done. This is because we have a paradigm shift, one that allows us to stop procrastinating naturally.

There is no future task waiting to be done, there is only the universe waiting for us to do what we must or should do, now.

There is always something you could be doing, in this very moment of “now,” that serves the ideal life you wish to create. When we sit around eating chips instead of writing our thesis, it is now. When we get up and go to the desk to work, it is now. When we finish our thesis, it is now.

No matter what we do, it is always the present moment. There will never be any future state in which you perform an action—everything fundamentally is done now. Even if you’re planning what to do in the future, it will be done (you guessed it) now.

This is not to say, of course, that all actions occur in the literal same moment. We can conceptualize the past and future for the sake of planning in conventional reality. We wouldn’t go to the store and buy diapers for a child who hasn’t been born yet, for example. But everything in our lives, from our birth to our death, occurs in the cradle of the present moment. And everything between those two posts, including moving jobs, having children, and becoming a billionaire, is contingent upon our ability to recognize what must be done in the present moment, and then doing that thing.

Each and every moment is a gateway into the next iteration of “now.” If we choose to procrastinate on studying, we waste the precious gift of nowness that could’ve been spent on sharpening our knowledge and getting a better test grade. And that test grade, depending on where and when it’s received, could mean the difference between a dream career and settling for less. This is just one concrete example, but it proves the point: the choices we make now will ripple forward and affect our course in life, no matter what we choose.

When we stop procrastinating, we truly see "through" time and into nowness.

So the answer to the question of how to stop procrastinating is both simple and demanding. If we want to stop procrastinating, we must be constantly aware of the shape and form of the present moment. We must keep our senses open, each and every instant, to clearly perceive what must be done.

There is nobody else controlling the “arrow of time” except for ourselves. We are both the archer and the arrow. In this moment, right now, ask yourself what you could be doing to guide your arrow toward the life you envision. Did something come to mind? Good. Now all you have to do is repeat this every moment, over and over, until the pattern fuels itself.

By consistently returning to the immediacy of the present moment and redirecting our energy toward valuable tasks, we retrain the way our minds conceive of action. We no longer choose to procrastinate out of a desire for sensory pleasure, because we see the frail, impermanent nature of it. We choose to do what must be done because of our innate wisdom.

I’ll leave it to one of my favorite teachers, Seung Sahn, to put it plainly:

“Only go straight.