Suffering and Happiness

Suffering and Happiness

What is in this mind, and what can we do about it?


I grew up in a loving family in an American suburb; compared to many, I was very fortunate. Yet most of my memories as a child include a sense of much unnecessary unhappiness around me, in both the grownups and the kids. Nothing terrible, but a lot of tension, bickering, worry, and strain. As I grew older, left home, caught the wave of the human potential movement in the 1970’s, and eventually became a psychologist, I learned that what had seemed like my own private unhappiness was in fact very common. It takes different forms, from the intense pain of trauma to a subtle feeling of unfulfillment. And between these extremes lie considerable anxiety, hurt, sorrow, frustration, and anger. 

In a word, there is suffering, named by the Buddha as the First Noble Truth of human existence. This is not the whole of life. There are also love and joy, laughing with friends, and the comfort of a warm sweater on a cold day. Yet each of us must face the truth of suffering some of the time, and many of us face it all of the time. 

Poignantly, much of our suffering is added to life. We add it when we worry needlessly, criticize ourselves to no good purpose, or replay the same conversation over and over again. We add it when we freeze up around an authority figure or feel ashamed of some minor fault. Life has unavoidable physical and emotional pains, and then we add suffering to them: thus the saying, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” For example, we get embarrassed about having an illness or drink too much to numb old wounds. 

This add-on suffering is not accidental. It has a source: “craving”, the sense of something missing, something wrong, something we must get. Most craving does not look like an addict searching for a fix. It includes getting attached to our own point of view, driving toward goals that are not worth the price, and holding onto grievances with others. It is chasing pleasure, pushing away pain, and clinging to relationships. This is the Buddha’s Second Noble Truth – but happily we’re not stuck there. Because we are the ones who make much of our own suffering, we are also the ones who can make it come to an end. This hopeful possibility is the Third Noble Truth, and the Fourth Noble Truth describes a path of practice that fulfills this promise. 

These four truths begin with a clear-eyed look at the realities of life, whether in rural India thousands of years ago or in high-tech cities today. I grew up in Los Angeles, and in its entertainment culture and then later in parts of the self-help world, I’ve seen a fair amount of happy-smiley pretense, fake it ‘til you make it. But we need to be honest enough and strong enough to see the truth of our experience, the whole truth, including the discontent, loneliness, and unease, and the unfulfilled longings for a reliable deep well-being. I once asked the teacher Gil Fronsdal what he did in his own practice. He paused and then smiled and said, “I stop for suffering.” This is where practice begins, facing suffering in ourselves and others. 

But it’s not where practice ends. The Buddha himself was described as “the happy one.” As I teach in my work and my book Neurodharma, wholesome enjoyable experiences such as kindness are skillful means for both ordinary functioning and full awakening. When suffering falls away, what is revealed is not a big blank but a natural sense of gratitude, good wishes for others, freedom, and ease. 

This is an excerpt from Neurodharma

Learn the new science and ancient wisdom for being as wise and strong, and happy and loving, as any person can ever be, in this book from Dr. Rick Hanson – now available!

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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