The endless cycle of conditional happiness

The Vicious Cycle of Conditional Happiness

In the pursuit of happiness within this sensory world, we employ our senses to embark on the quest for fulfillment. However, this endeavor can never come to an end. In fact, no one has successfully completed this search in this manner.

Some may believe they have found genuine fulfillment; unfortunately, they are merely deceiving themselves. What often escapes our realization is that, even if we possess all the things we desire in life, perpetual wanting persists. Day after day, week after week, month after month, or year after year – once is never enough.

When we want something, we can’t be inherently content. From this state, we have to take action to get what we want. But that’s not enough. We keep seeking confirmation to affirm that we always still possess what we desire. How do we know this?

Well, ask yourself this question: what happens the moment you take away anything or anyone you perceive as valuable? Does that not hurt your happiness? Then how can we say we have found true fulfillment or contentment?

For as long as we attempt to extract happiness through the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, physical sensations, and even our thoughts, we’ll find ourselves trapped in a vicious cycle. Until this perception changes, there’s no escaping this cycle.

In this article, we’re going to see what drives this cycle of conditional happiness and how we can start getting out of it.


We have countless hopes and expectations regarding how the world and everything and everyone in it should behave. Many of these are subconscious but if you pay close attention, you’ll spot them throughout the day.
In essence, both conscious and subconscious hopes and expectations revolve around things we desire. When I mention “want,” I’m referring to that which you wish to experience through your senses – what you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. 

When recalling a past experience or thinking about something else, you may have similar sensations. For instance, envisioning a specific type of food allows you to imagine how it looks, tastes, smells, and even feels. Even though you’re solely engaging in thought, it closely resembles a sensory experience.

While not the central focus of this article, on a deeper level, our experience is entirely mental, as we’ll delve into further in the future. For now, what we can conclude is that the way we think determines how we feel. Hence, we want or desire to think in certain ways and not in others. This is why our mental faculty of thought can be considered part of our senses.

In this article, our primary focus will be on conscious hopes and expectations and how they lead to getting trapped in an inherently unfulfilling vicious cycle.

An unfulfilled drink

Take a moment to think how frequently you get together with friends for a drink. Do you meet at your friend’s place, your place, or do you perhaps head out together somewhere? Your meetups might be a weekly occurrence, but they could be more or less frequent as well.

Before you go and have a drink, there’s an initial conscious desire. Let’s assume you’re in the mood to go and not feel like you’re being dragged by one of your friends. How that happens I’ve explained in Everything in the Name of Happiness.

As mentioned earlier, we’ll delve into this conscious desire. However, let’s briefly touch on the distinction between a conscious desire and an unconscious desire using a similar scenario.

It’s possible that a friend pays an unexpected visit, and you are delighted to see them, inviting them in and offering a drink. In our conscious example, the want is more pronounced, while in the unconscious example, it lies beneath the surface until the object of desire presents itself.

However, it was already present from the start. This becomes apparent when we pose the question: “How would I feel if I could never *insert want* again?” In the case of our example: “How would I feel if I could never have a drink with my friends again?”

The intensity of the feeling that arises in response to this question reflects the strength of the desire. If there’s no such desire, you would be completely fine regardless of the outcome—unless, of course, you dislike socializing with friends. In such a case, the thought of never having to meet with anyone again might bring you joy, although this is an unlikely scenario.

So, you want to spend time with a friend. You opt to go out and share a drink, perhaps in a café or bar, and if the weather permits, maybe on a terrace. You meet up, enjoy a drink, engage in conversation about your lives, recent events, and perhaps exchange a bit of gossip. While there are likely multiple desires at play, let’s keep it simple for now. We’ll also assume that your expectations are met, leading to a sense of enjoyment and satisfaction during and after your meeting.

How genuine is that satisfaction really? When are you going to want to meet again?

Regardless of the answer, the desire to meet again is inevitable. If not with the same friend (in case you get into an unexpected conflict), then with another friend. 

Let’s sum everything up and create a visual representation of this cycle.

The moment you want to meet with a friend, you initiate some form of action. You need to call your friend, you need to dress up, exert physical energy to go to the meeting place, etc. Next, you get what you desire, which is having a drink with your friend. This results in a sense of contentment. 

However, as carefully explained in The Happiness Paradox, Is Your Happiness a Leaky Glass?, and Why You Keep Seeking Happiness Outside Yourself this feeling of contentment is only a relief of the vexation or dissatisfaction you experienced caused by your desire.

See, you didn’t feel fully satisfied before your meeting. If you really want to see your friend, you’re actually far from content. When that desire gets fulfilled, that’s when that vexation gets relieved, which you perceive as contentment. The relief, however, is short-lived, as the cycle restarts when you’re going to want to meet your friend (or any other friend) again

the vicious cycle of conditional happiness
A visual representation of the vicious cycle that is conditional happiness.

As I’ve explained in Is Your Happiness a Leaky Glass?, even if you believe you’re satisfied with a certain sense input, you are still inherently dissatisfied.

For instance, you may feel satisfied with one type of movie, but you’ll still want to see other movies, YouTube videos, and so on. And, although rare, even if you become completely fed up with movies or videos, you still want to see many other things in your life, especially “beautiful things” — not for the sake of seeing but for the sake of becoming happy.

You’re always trying to extract happiness from the outside through your senses. All this time, you’ve been stuck in this cycle and have never found what you were looking for. If you had, you wouldn’t be in this cycle in the first place.

Don’t misunderstand me and think I’m suggesting that you no longer need your eyes, ears, sense of smell, taste, or touch. Our senses keep us out of danger and make life a whole lot easier. Imagine going to the grocery store blindfolded. Sure, you could get used to it, and if you were blind, you’d have no choice at all, but it’s simply not as convenient.

The point is that as soon as we rely on our senses for our happiness, we get stuck in a never-ending cycle of vexation and the relief of it. To be more precise, this is how we live our life then:

People set all kinds of goals in life because they’re searching for meaning and contentment. But what’s the point if you’re constantly stuck in this never-ending cycle? No matter what you do, you can’t break free.

Shouldn’t the real meaning of life be about breaking out of this cycle and finding true happiness? Regardless of whether you believe in heaven, hell, rebirth, or none of these, shouldn’t everyone have the right to be truly free in this very life?

Why you are stuck

Imagine you’ve scraped your knee, and now there’s a wound, accompanied by a burning sensation. How does it feel when you apply a soothing balm? Isn’t that a wonderful relief? Now, consider this – if it feels so good, why not intentionally scrape your other knee on the pavement just to experience that soothing balm again?

That’s insane, who on earth would do that?!” you’d likely respond.

If that sounds crazy, then why do we go through life exerting effort after effort to find relief, only to repeat the cycle over and over again? The reason is simple: we didn’t realize this was happening to us. None of us did. All along, we thought that seeking relief was a worthwhile pursuit, contributing to our happiness.

Herein lies the answer to our problem: we don’t know how to be genuinely happy without having to depend on other people and things.

So, what do you think is the solution to not knowing? Well, what do you typically do when you don’t know something?

You study it so you can gain an understanding of the problem, and then you begin solving it, don’t you?

Let’s imagine your car is in the garage, and your friend lends you hers for a few days. On the morning you plan to drive to work, the car refuses to start. It seems you’re going to get late for work. Puzzled and feeling a bit helpless, you try to reach your friend, but she doesn’t pick up. Fortunately, your neighbor steps in. He identifies the problem – your car isn’t in “Park” or “Neutral” transmission and therefore won’t start.

What can you say; it’s your first time in a car with an automatic transmission, and you were clueless. However, now you understand the issue and know how to deal with it in the future.

Similarly, the initial step to break free from this cycle is becoming aware that we’re stuck in the first place

Unlike the automatic transmission scenario, this takes a bit more time. That’s because all the thoughts that emerge in your mind do so with an awareness or perception that happiness can be achieved through your senses. These thoughts automatically arise in response to the sensory inputs you encounter. You can’t determine which thought will arise in response to the stimuli around you.

Funny thought experiments

“But when I want to think of something, I can think of it. If I want to think of an elephant, I can think of an elephant.”

Alright, then tell me, where did that thought come from? It is a thought in itself. You can’t claim you chose to have that thought; it emerged in response to what I said. The initial thought arises as part of a process.

This process occurs so rapidly that we’re not consciously aware of how it happens. We can illustrate our lack of control over this with a straightforward example. To demonstrate, I’m going to write a word, and your task is to intentionally think of something entirely different. So, whatever comes to mind now, focus on that while I present you with the word.

Ready?

Click on “Show More” to uncover the word when you’re ready, and don’t lose sight of your thought object:

Poop

So, were you able to keep your attention on your thought object?

If you believe you did, then it implies that the moment you saw the word, you had no idea what it meant. You wouldn’t have been able to recognize it. If you did recognize it and knew what it meant, then you weren’t actually engaged with your intended thought object as you think you were.

Recognition is part of a thought. It happens so rapidly that you have no time to become conscious of it until a few mini-moments have passed.

We can also use this experiment to see how little control you have over a thought. Take the thought object you just had. Could you think of it non-stop for 1 minute, without even a moment’s break?

Of course, we can’t measure this, but let’s imagine there’s some equipment to measure what you were thinking. Picture yourself in a competition where the grand prize of one million dollars goes to the person who can sustain their focus on the same thought object continuously for 60 seconds.

Despite the seemingly simple task and a substantial incentive, it’s improbable that anyone would ever win this competition. If you don’t believe me, please try it out yourself now and observe whether you can focus on your thought object for that long.

Now, for one final experiment. Let’s go back to the word “poop.” Can you look at the word and try not to understand what it means? Take a moment to attempt to not comprehend it. Whatever you do, try to “de-understand” or “un-understand” the word.

How successful are you? 

You can’t not understand what you’re looking at, no matter how hard you try, unless you’ve just hit your head or had a few too many drinks. Similarly, we are incapable of not understanding what it is we’re interacting with—be it people or familiar objects. 

This highlights how our perception is the outcome of a process. And this is the key to beginning to break free from the perpetual cycle of illusion that is conditional happiness. Why do I call it illusory?

Illusory because we feel we attain it, but we are never able to grasp it. It’s like trying to grasp air.

Wisdom is the key to your liberation

Knowing about the vicious cycle is just the first step. The key is to cultivate a realization of it to the extent that the thoughts that arise in your mind undergo a transformation. That’s the moment you start breaking free from the cycle. That’s when you can interact with things that come in through your senses freely without depending on them for happiness.

Currently, thoughts arise for certain sense objects and are perceived as inherently valuable or inherently bad, to put it simply. That’s when vexation begins, and you do everything you can to relieve yourself of that vexation by trying to acquire whatever it is you’re seeking.

Not knowing you’re stuck in a cycle feeds the cycle. In other words, ignorance feeds this cycle. Ignorance feeds the belief that you’re not actually stuck in a cycle. By starting to understand this, we weaken ignorance. That’s another way of saying that we’re developing wisdom.

This cycle hinges on ignorance. It cannot be maintained without ignorance. Ignorance is the glue that keeps it all together.

How does ignorance feed the cycle of conditional happiness?

As discussed in the previous article, “Why You Hopelessly Keep Seeking Happiness Outside Yourself,” even though the object you long for causes you discomfort when you don’t have it, the moment you attain it, that feeling of vexation is instantly relieved. This relief of vexation and the fulfillment of your desire happen simultaneously, and because the relief feels pleasurable, your mind naturally perceives that the source of your pain (wanting that particular object!) has become your source of happiness. This cycle is impossible to escape unless you become aware of this process first.

However, the amazing news is that the moment we start chipping away at ignorance is the moment we begin to break free from this trap.

ignorance prevents you from becoming happy unconditionally

Imagine not needing people and things to make you happy anymore. Wouldn’t that be liberating? The moment you don’t have to seek happiness outside anymore, your mind reaches a state of incredibly deep peace. The serenity and calm surpass any pleasure you could ever experience.

I recall many occasions when people envied the way I lived my life: traveling extensively, living abroad, and experiencing various adventures.

However, I can tell you there was absolutely nothing to envy. All that time, I was stuck in the cycle of conditional happiness, just like everybody else.

Every single one of those experiences pales in comparison to what I experience now, based on the realization I have. I can sleep without any agitation in my mind, I don’t hold grudges anymore, and the love I feel is far more genuine than it has ever been before, extending far beyond my family and friends.

If this relatively little realization can bring this much, imagine what a deeper realization can offer? The deeper the realization, the further you move away from this cycle and the more your happiness becomes free from any kind of external conditions.

Causes and conditions ALWAYS manifest a corresponding result

Your thoughts are not going to change overnight. It takes a bit of time. But if you lay the foundation and persist, a structure will rise. It is not complicated; it is simply cause and effect. As long as you keep preparing the right conditions for your mind, the realization will develop. This is how nature works: every single effect you witness in nature is a result of corresponding causes. That’s why, if you keep working on the causes and conditions for this realization to manifest, it’s only a matter of time before it does.

What are the right causes and conditions?

First, for wisdom to be cultivated, the environment needs to be supportive and conducive. That’s why I discussed in “The 2 MUST-HAVES for Unconditional Happiness” how crucial it is to live a life of kindness and generosity.

Second, for any thoughts to change at the root, it is essential to change the root of one’s views and perceptions since thoughts arise based on these. That can only be done through a careful objective reflection of how the mind and its surroundings operate.

In other words, we study, learn, and apply these principles to our own life’s experiences.

Mindfulness and Happiness Exercise

mindfulness exercise and happiness exercise.

In the next article, we will apply this conditional happiness cycle to unconscious desires, i.e., situations that happen relatively unexpectedly and might even pleasantly surprise you. Earlier, I gave the example of a friend visiting. For this exercise, it’s easier to first focus on your conscious desires. If you want to know more about surprise events, I talked about this in The Happiness Paradox.

If you take an object of your desire that you have not achieved yet, that’s possible, but the cycle cannot exceed then beyond the vexation part since you have not found relief from vexation by fulfilling that desire.

Something that can be closely tied to this is daydreaming. Daydreaming about a desire can feel pleasant as well. The object of your desire can either be something you wish to obtain for real, or you simply drift away in scenarios that would never actually manifest in real life.

In both scenarios, you will only feel good when you imagine and feel that you have gotten something you desire. That is also a relief of vexation. We know that because you keep doing it again, don’t you? If you were to force yourself not to do it, you’d feel that vexation more clearly. This is a bit of a subtle point that deserves a more in-depth explanation in the future.

Ideally, pick an object of desire that you’re in a position to fulfill, so you can explore whether true fulfillment occurs or if vexation resurfaces, prompting you to start the cycle anew. An easy way to practice this is by choosing something you do regularly, like watching TV, meeting friends, or the desire to eat specific things. While eating is a necessity, selecting specific items unrelated to your health serves as a good exercise object.

  1. Choose something you currently desire that you’ve also wanted and fulfilled in the past.
  2. Notice the feeling of discontentment or incompleteness as long as you haven’t fulfilled this desire.
  3. Reflect on the actions you take to satisfy that desire. Consider the mental and physical energy spent in getting closer to what you want. During this time, you do not feel complete until the desire is fulfilled. Any initial anticipation may seem pleasurable when it appears you are going to get what you want. However, when it seems you aren’t, the vexation starts becoming apparent.
  4. Observe how you feel when you first obtain the desired object. Note how the vexation dissipates.
  5. Recognize that as vexation diminishes, a sense of joy increases.
  6. Contemplate how long this satisfaction lasts. Does it last indefinitely, leaving you fully satisfied without needing further action? Or does the desire resurface over time, prompting you to take action again for renewed pleasure by relieving the accompanying vexation?

Conclusion

If you consider yourself a happy person, what would happen to your happiness if you were to lose the things you are attached to? In the pursuit of happiness, we’re on an endless search to fulfill our desires, whether that’s done by meeting with a friend, watching a video or TV, eating a cookie, going on a trip, browsing through our phone, etc. Even when these actions are expected of us, we tend to continue them unnecessarily expecting them to make us happy.

If these activities truly made us happy, why do we have to keep doing them?

We find ourselves trapped in a cycle, akin to a hamster running in its wheel. Where is the hamster going? It can’t go anywhere, but that doesn’t stop it from feeling it has covered distance. 

Similarly, we feel we’re making progress whenever we satisfy our desires, but from a bird’s eye view, we can see we haven’t actually moved forward. We keep engaging in the same activities repeatedly. This is the trap of conditional happiness – a never-ending cycle that perpetuates itself through ignorance. 

The only way to break free and experience happiness independent of anything or anyone else is by developing a realization of what is really happening.

That’s when we step out of our ceaseless pursuit and begin to experience true bliss.

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