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The Wisdom of Wei Wu Wei: Letting Good Things Happen

Why too much effort can be self-defeating.

Key points

  • The principle of wei wu wei refers to action through inaction.
  • Some valuable things in life cannot be achieved by simply trying harder, such as happiness and love.
  • Efforts to achieve things like happiness and love can often be self-defeating.

Do nondoing, strive for nonstriving. — Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching (translation by Thomas Cleary)

I first read Lao Tzu's classic Tao Te Ching during my senior year in college, and I've reread it many times since (as well as the works of Chuang-Tzu and other Taoist scholars). One of the most valuable lessons which I took from it was wei wu wei, or action through inaction. This principle can be interpreted many ways; here I share only my own interpretation, which has proven invaluable to me ever since.

To me, wei wu wei is about knowing when effort is appropriate and when it's wasted. Obviously, it doesn't apply to tasks that you must exert effort to finish: reports don't write themselves, garages don't clean themselves, and babies don't burp themselves. But there are some valuable things in life that cannot be achieved by simply trying harder; what's more, efforts to achieve them can often be self-defeating, like planning to be spontaneous or not thinking of a green elephant.

Here are two examples.


As I understand it—and there is much disagreement on this, I know—happiness is not something you seek, but rather the byproduct of doing things that make you happy. I think this applies pretty well whether you define happiness as momentary hedonic pleasure or deeper, longer-lasting fulfillment. In either case, you can't "try" to be happy; you do things that will make you happy as a result. To put it another way, you can't try to find happiness; happiness will find you when you do things you enjoy. Too much effort devoted to being happy will likely make you miserable.


Another important aspect of life that can be defeated by trying too hard is love. Most people would agree that you can't "try" or will yourself to love someone (at least not in an ideal, romantic sense). Consider the following two ways to start a relationship: One, you seek out someone you get along with and try to love him or her (and to make him or her love you), or two, you happen to meet someone, and over time you discover that you get along and have a lot in common, and gradually you fall in love. I've experienced both, and believe me, the second is positively magical; it happens when you least expect it, and sometimes when you need it the most (whether you know it or not).

(For readers who want a dash of science with their Eastern philosophy, this description of wei wu wei fits very well with the work of Dan Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness, who explains how ignorant we are of what makes us happy, implying that seeking happiness is not necessarily the best way to find it; Timothy D. Wilson in Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious, who emphasizes the role of our unconscious mind in our identities and the value of our "gut" reactions, which can be contradicted by our conscious efforts; and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, who promotes engagement in activity as a path—or tao—to fulfillment.)

This is not to say that there aren't things you can do to help find happiness or love. True, you shouldn't try too hard to seek them, but neither should you keep them from finding you. You must keep yourself open to new things, new experiences, and new people—and this can take effort, but it is worthwhile in this case because it isn't directed toward achieving love or happiness, but rather being ready to accept it when it comes.

I understand this may not be what people who are yearning for happiness or love want to hear, especially if they've been waiting for a long time with no success. Most of us like to feel that we're in control, and doing something towards a worthy goal, being proactive, feels better than doing nothing. But in these cases, as paradoxical as it sounds, doing nothing is doing something, and is likely the best way to find true happiness or true love--or both!

This post is dedicated to a dear friend who appreciated the meaning of wei wu wei.

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