Why You Can't "Figure Out" Your Way to Happiness
More thinking, as it turns out, is not the solution to what ails us.
Posted March 12, 2019
We spend our early years learning how to do stuff; we learn to walk, talk, read, play sports, have conversations and everything in between. Early on, we’re indoctrinated into the belief that knowing things holds weight and is important for our happiness and even survival. Knowing makes us valid, valuable, powerful, sought after, and many other positive things. Knowing makes us belong, which is fundamental to our safety and happiness. Knowing is good for our identity and our survival, both.
Knowing also gives us a sense of control. If we can know something, we believe we can control it. If we can control it, we feel less vulnerable, and less at the mercy of our ever-changing (uncontrollable) life. And of course, if we can control life, we can be happy.
When we’re young, we’re taught most of what we need to know in order to function well. We’re schooled in the process of living. As we get older, however, we’re no longer taught what we need to know and seem to know less and less. And yet the belief persists: we have to know in order to stay safe and be okay. Great anxiety thus forms within us, in the space of this gap. As a result, we start desperately trying to figure out life.
In our modern world, we know through our mind. We make sense of things, organize ideas into rational patterns and linear progressions. Causes and effects. Knowing involves stringing together our thoughts about what’s happening, why it’s happening and what we need to do about it. Whatever we want, whatever problem we think we have, we’re convinced that thinking more about it will lead us to the answer we need. We think we can think our way out of and into everywhere, everyone, and everything.
Simultaneously, we all crave a sense of serenity that can withstand the ever-changing ups and downs of life. We want to trust in something that can hold steady in the midst of the unknowable and often difficult reality that is life. And so, we bring this same figure it out/knowing paradigm to how we view the attainment of the peace we desire. We imagine that we can mentally muscle our way to serenity, that more thinking about life will ultimately lead us to peace.
One of the inherent problems with this belief system, our great faith in and reverence for figuring it out, is that it relies on the premise that our thoughts (the building blocks of figuring it out) are not just our thoughts, but rather, the truth. We think that our subjective experience is an objective reality, simply what is. And it follows then that everything that’s built from our thoughts, every narrative we construct from our thoughts should also be absolute truth.
If I have a fight with a friend then start figuring out what happened and what needs to happen going forward, I’m basing that interpretation, that entire storyline of thought, on my subjective experience, my particular mind with its particular wounds, conditioning, history, thoughts, core beliefs, and everything else I’ve ever lived. I believe that my thoughts about what this other person was doing is what they were doing and therefore, what I think they need to stop or start doing in order for me to feel better is also an inarguable fact.
But the problem is, what I think this friend is doing may have nothing to do with what they think they’re doing or what I’m doing for that matter. Their intentions and inner reality may and probably does exist on another planet than mine. The whole narrative I’ve constructed, the way I’ve figured this situation out, is irrelevant and useless then. I’m operating in a universe (my mind) with rules and systems that make sense inside this particular mind, but which have little or nothing to do with what’s happening in other minds. What makes the dots connect in my thought system is of little use when applied to someone or something else’s reality. That said, figuring out life, based on our personal narrative, is an exercise in futility and to some degree, absurdity.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand our experience. But rather, that we need to be aware that our knowledge, our version of what makes sense lives only in our own mind. Our truth exists within us, and only within us. And, it co-exists with billions of other truths that exist in other people’s minds. We can still present our version of reality or our truth to another person but we can stop assuming that our subjective experience, our thoughts of what makes sense, are also true in some absolute way. We don’t have to work ourselves up into a lather believing that we have the keys to the castle, we know exactly what’s happening and the way it all needs to go. And, we don’t need to worry that if it doesn’t go the way we’ve scripted it, the way our mind tells us it must, that something is wrong and we are being wronged.
It’s profoundly liberating to realize that our version of the truth, which not coincidentally always places us at the center of what’s driving everyone and everything else, may not and probably is not the truth for anyone else. When we believe this, we suffer alone (and we really suffer), trapped inside the certainty of our own figured-out and usually unwanted reality.
There is yet another flaw in our assumption that we can figure out our way to happiness. The belief that bringing more thoughts and mental understanding of a challenging situation or relationship will automatically benefit that situation or relationship is false. We believe that the mind is the proper tool for every situation, but it’s not. It’s often the worst tool we can pull out of the shed in fact. In many cases, what’s needed for actual improvement, growth or change, is something else entirely.
Sometimes, if we’re dealing with a difficult person, the best thing we can do is nothing—not try and understand their behavior or what we need to do about it. Sometimes the best thing we can do is to just let it be what it is.
Often, when we stop trying to figure out what’s wrong with and how to fix everyone and everything (which we know as masters of the universe), and just let it be the way it is, for now, our whole experience changes. We discover that in all the trying to understand and fix, we actually exacerbate the problem, not just on the outside but on the inside too, scratching at the wrongs, fomenting anger and resentment, which always intensifies our own suffering.
Sometimes, when confronting a problematic person, it’s wise to simply offer it the generosity of compassion, the serenity of not trying to control it, and the wisdom of not trying to figure it out. It can be helpful to realize that the other person’s behavior probably comes out of their own suffering or ignorance, and also remind yourself that they also want the same things you want—happiness, safety, and peace—even if the way they’re going about it may not seem wise to you. Keeping our attention focused in kindness, while resisting the urge to go up into our sense-making mind, frequently serves to improve the situation far more than any mental gymnastics could. The felt experience of wishing this person well, even if we cannot or choose not to try and understand their behavior, is the choice that brings the most change—and relief. And most importantly, whether or not we can find compassion for this other, it is an act of profound compassion--for ourselves--to stop trying to figure it all out. Nothing ultimately feels better.
Knowing feels fundamental to our safety and control. But in the end, surrendering to not knowing, realizing that if what we really want is for the situation to change or us to change in relation to the situation; if what we really want is peace, then understanding it more is not the wisest choice.
In place of figuring it all out (which I spent umpteen years doing) I now like to turn difficult people and situations into opportunities. In place of trying to make sense, I focus on being the person I want to be in the situation. I turn my attention away from figuring out what’s making the other do what they’re doing and how to get them to change (according to my reality), and towards how I am being in the midst of this reality. This profound turn from something I can’t control something I can gives me back my power and more importantly, my freedom.
What’s ironic too is that if my underlying desire is for my external world to change with regard to this difficult situation, I’ve had far more success when my focus is on my own behavior and not the others. Taking my eye off the self-diagnosed problem and putting it on myself, how I’m being in this difficulty, just plain works better. But even when the situation doesn’t change on the outside, my experience of the situation on the inside radically changes when I shift my attention in this way. Challenges become opportunities to grow and evolve; in moments I actually even look forward to them. I get to practice being who I want to be, my best self; I get to choose what my own participation in life will look like.
The process of taking care of my own side of the street has never failed to be a nourishing and rewarding choice. It always changes my experience even when it doesn’t change a single thing on the outside.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say (something like) "When I don’t try and figure it out, I’m happier and things go better," I'd be a very wealthy woman. I sure know that’s it's been true for me. Figuring it out may give us a pseudo sense of control and safety, but it doesn’t make us feel better, which at the end of the day is what we really want.