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Attachment

Hold On Loosely: Why Attachment Is a Double-Edged Sword

Our attachments can lead to greater happiness or suffering. Here's why.

Key points

  • We need healthy social attachments to survive and thrive.
  • Becoming overly attached is the root of much unnecessary suffering.
  • We need to strive for some flexibility in our attachments because the nature of life is change.
TRAVELARIUM/iStock
Source: TRAVELARIUM/iStock

We can all probably agree that a purpose in life is to be happy, in the deep-rooted sense. Finding ways to reduce suffering in life is critical since, obviously, it's difficult to be happy when we are suffering (unless one is a masochist). The Buddha identified some truths about suffering more than 2,500 years ago that have stood the test of time (and have been identified by other wisdom teachers and religions), but one does not have to be a Buddhist to appreciate these insights. The Four Noble Truths describe suffering and lay the groundwork for how to liberate ourselves from it:

  1. Life is suffering.
  2. The cause of suffering is attachment (sometimes translated as desire or craving).
  3. The end of suffering comes with an end to attachment (or desire or craving).
  4. There is a path that leads one away from craving and suffering (The Noble Eightfold Path).

Let's examine this concept of attachment more closely, including through the lens of Western psychology, and see how a better understanding of attachment can help us reduce our suffering.

Attachment, Suffering, and Happiness

Our attachments are not inherently bad for us. In fact, healthy attachments are necessary for us to survive and thrive. When our fundamental attachments needs are not met, we will experience Level 1 Suffering. In contrast, when our attachments become obsessive or shift into cravings, such unhealthy attachments make us vulnerable to Level 2 Suffering.

Evolutionarily, we need certain attachments to be functional human beings. For example, if we were not attached to being physically alive, we would not have survived as a species. In addition, as social creatures, our attachments with one another are fundamental to our survival. In particular, parents and their kids need to be attached to one another in healthy ways. Psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth pioneered studies of infant attachment to their caregivers. In brief, they found evidence that early attachments between infants and their caregivers could have long-lasting effects, for good or for ill, depending upon the quality and type of attachment.

In a series of experiments that could be considered quite cruel, American psychologist Harry Harlow demonstrated how infant rhesus monkeys, when taken from their mothers soon after birth, suffered the equivalent of psychological trauma even when their physical needs were met. These unfortunate infant monkeys never developed properly into healthy, functional adults because they suffered tremendously when their social and physical bonding needs were not met. Similarly, studies of children raised in Romanian orphanages found long-lasting psychological and behavioral problems because their needs for physical connection and social interaction were not met during crucial developmental periods.

We naturally suffer when our healthy social attachments are compromised. When we think of the worst times in our lives, they are likely to include being bullied, harassed, teased, criticized, dumped, divorced, fired, or rejected, or when a loved one moved or passed away. I describe this type of suffering as Level 1 Suffering.

On the other hand, a wealth of studies and our own experiences tell us that our healthy social connections are highly related to our overall happiness and life satisfaction. When we recall our happiest moments, chances are those times were spent in the company of loved ones. Once our basic needs have been met, healthy social relationships are one of the best predictors of life satisfaction. The simple equation is Connectedness = Happiness. Or, if we want to be a little more poetic about it, Love = Happiness.

When Our Attachments Lead to Unnecessary Suffering

Problems arise when we become overly attached or obsessively clingy. In social relationships, this is sometimes referred to enmeshment or co-dependency. However, we can become overly attached to just about anything: our car, status, club, team, hobby, college, country, flag, political party/candidate, religion, cause, personal story, honor, reputation, being right, and so on. We can even become overly attached to freedom, flexibility, and nonattachment. For example, if I get upset with you because you disagree with me about the importance of nonattachment, then I'm too attached to the concept of nonattachment. These attachments reside in our heads; they are mental constructs we unconsciously create.

Problems also arise when we become attached to things that are transitory or impermanent. We often forget that the nature of life is change. Everything we can think of changes: our bodies, brains, kids, the seasons, our jobs, technology, homes, finances, and so on. Our very existence changes as we come into the world and, ultimately, leave it. Even stars born into this universe eventually die. Thus, we should strive for flexibility in our attachments because the objects of our attachment are inherently in flux. In this way, we suffer unnecessarily when we don't accept their impermanent nature.

According to Buddhist psychology, most of our troubles stem from attachment to things that we mistakenly see as permanent. –His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The universe is change; our life is what our thoughts make it. –Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

No man ever steps into the same river twice for it is not the same river and he is not the same man. –Heraclitus

Changes aren't permanent, but change is. –"Tom Sawyer," Rush

Attachment Is Counter to Flexibility

As discussed above, a purpose in life is to be happy, in the deep-rooted sense. A related purpose is to learn, grow, and improve. Doing so engenders greater levels of happiness. However, we cannot learn, grow, and improve unless we are flexible. Since life is always changing, we must be flexible to adaptively respond to its dynamic complexities. When we become overly attached, we lose flexibility. Our attachments become chains that bind us.

The Takeaway

We should strive for healthy attachments in life. Becoming overly attached is the root of much unnecessary suffering. Thus, we want our attachments to be loose...supple...pliable. This allows us to adapt to the ever-changing nature of life as well as to live in greater harmony with it. These ideas come from ancient and modern wisdom, science, and, if you reflect deeply, your own experiences as well. When advice from many sources converges to give the same message, we should listen carefully.

Thus whoever is stiff and inflexible is a disciple of death. Whoever is soft and yielding is a disciple of life. –Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching

Hold on loosely. But don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control. –“Hold on Loosely," .38 Special

This topic is also covered in an episode of my podcast, The Reasonably Good Life.

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