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Mindfulness Is Key to Happiness in Modern Mental Health

When Western psychology meets Eastern philosophy.

Key points

  • Western capitalistic ideals can hurt one's sense of worth, resulting in negative core beliefs like inadequacy and unworthiness.
  • Maslow defines self-actualization as the highest level of psychological development, where personal potential is fully realized.
  • Buddhists believe self-actualization, becoming enlightened by removing suffering and accepting oneself fully, needs to come first.
  • Interventions like ACT and DBT use mindfulness skills to acknowledge pain and relieve suffering.
Source: Unsplash

Although psychology is a field that has largely been developed and nurtured in the West, a lot has changed since Freud’s heyday in the early 20th century—and today, many contemporary psychotherapies borrow elements from Eastern practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and acceptance. Together, these sometimes contrasting views have molded what modern mental health looks like today—balancing each other like yin and yang.

The Western Way

Western societies, including the United States, tend to lean heavily on capitalistic ideals that drive individuals’ sense of worth. Many people measure life and success by how much they achieve, how much money they make, and how much they contribute to society.

However, because competition is an inherent component of capitalism, it's just not possible for everyone to reach the top. This can result in internalizing negative core beliefs such as feeling inadequate, unworthy, and purposeless.

Project Maslow
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Source: Project Maslow

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory taught in every Psychology 101 course, reinforces the role of capitalism in mental health. Maslow argues that once an individual’s basic needs such as housing, food, water, and shelter are met (which in the U.S. is only guaranteed for those with capital), along with their safety, social, and emotional needs, only then is the individual able to self-actualize.

Maslow defines self-actualization as the highest level of psychological development, where personal potential is fully realized. However, this theory relies on the concept of potential—which is the possibility that we are capable of more—and asserts that those who aren’t self-actualizing are falling short and aren’t doing their part for the good of society.

Oppression Olympics

Furthermore, the competitive nature of capitalism can lead some people to take part in what has been informally called the "Oppression Olympics." As a trauma-informed psychotherapist for Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC) individuals and families, one of the most common barriers for overcoming trauma that I come across is the belief that one’s trauma is not valid because there are people out there who have it worse.

Nonetheless, even the more privileged are not exempt from the societal complex trauma that is capitalism. The term "complex trauma" refers to repetitive, ongoing, and cumulative physical, emotional, and/or psychological trauma—which is what some people may experience in this competitive, dog-eat-dog world. Those who experience this kind of trauma often feel unseen, unheard, and unable to make a change. People who don’t quite fit the capitalist mold may end up feeling worthless, useless, and hopeless.

For Millennials—the first generation predicted to make less than our parents—this trauma can hit harder as we compare ourselves to the previous generation who saw buying a house as a norm and rite of passage. For Millennials, nearly 1 in 5 have given up on homeownership completely, with affordability as the primary barrier. Instead, the dream of owning a farm, living self-sustainably, and leaving no trace has become a new phenomenon. Tired of competing in a system that feels rigged, they may fantasize about retreating and isolating so they can finally just be.

Eastern Enlightenment

However, while Western cultures tend to glorify work and productivity, some indigenous cultures believe we’re alive just like nature is alive. We don’t need anything else to validate our humanity. Buddha didn’t practice all of that meditation to reach his fullest potential—Buddha did it to reach enlightenment, which occurred when he was able to remove his life from suffering by accepting the present reality.

Sharon Kwon
Pa Pae Meditation Retreat
Source: Sharon Kwon

Maslow Reversed

I recently attended a Vipassanā meditation retreat in Thailand, called Pa Pae Meditation Retreat, which was founded by Nick Keomahavong, a former psychotherapist from California who gave up his thriving career to become a Buddhist monk. At the monastery, one of the monks gave a dhamma talk in which he spoke about how Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is actually upside down. He argued that self-actualization, which in Buddhist philosophy means reaching enlightenment by removing suffering and accepting oneself fully, needs to come first, and then the rest will follow. While this theory may not be applicable to all populations in the U.S., especially in a country with systemic racism designed to keep people of color at the bottom, I did appreciate this unique line of thought.

Mindfulness in Modern Mental Health

These days, many popular evidence-based interventions borrow concepts from Eastern philosophies. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), which are used to treat mood disorders, complex trauma, and personality disorders, among a broad spectrum of populations ranging from the homeless to middle class cisgender white males, incorporate elements of mindfulness. Both of these interventions focus on teaching people to observe their thoughts without acting on them. They acknowledge that pain is unavoidable and a part of life, but suffering doesn't have to be.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy

In DBT, radical acceptance is when you stop fighting reality, stop responding with impulsive or destructive behaviors when things aren’t going the way you want them to, and let go of the bitterness that may be keeping you trapped in a cycle of suffering. Radical acceptance is a distress tolerance skill that is designed to keep pain from turning into suffering.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

ACT is all about honing the observing self and being able to observe thoughts and feelings and allow them to come and go while also increasing one’s distress tolerance and capacity for feeling negative emotions. By developing the skill of observing your thoughts, you can then choose to act on the ones that align with your values and bring you toward the life you want to live, which ultimately relieves suffering in and around you.

These mindfulness skills are common practices in Buddhism. As the late Thích Nhất Hạnh said: "The meditator breathes in and says, 'Hello, my fear, my anger, my despair. I will take good care of you.'"

Sharon Kwon
If You Train Your Mind Well, Happiness Will Surely Come
Source: Sharon Kwon

Acceptance as the Key to Happiness

In this increasingly globalized world, it’s safe to say that the Western way isn’t necessarily the best or only way. The happiest people aren’t always the ones with money and fame. The happiest and most enlightened people are the ones who have accepted themselves and are unhindered by the way capitalism dictates that we must work harder and be better, even though we already are.

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