The happiness paradox


A friend recently pointed out to me that there’s an inherent contradiction in mindfulness. It says on one hand that you don’t need to do anything, achieve anything or change anything about yourself, in order to be happy. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, happiness is now or never. And yet there are all these teachings and practices that suggest there is something to be attained, that a happier version of ourselves is available if we could change certain things in ourselves.

The fact is that it is a paradox. It is possible, you can even say necessary, to be both content in the here and now and yet continue taking steps towards improving your happiness – which suggests you’re not completely happy. This paradox can be understood by separating the mind into different departments, a bit like in a government. They’ve all got the same ultimate goal of helping the country, or self, but they also have their own agendas, which are sometimes in conflict.

The seeking department is always looking for something more: it might be seeking a pay increase, a holiday, a rest, to be more productive, to be fitter, to be noticed, a spouse, truth, love, understanding, wisdom, likes on Facebook, to know what’s happening in the news, to eat something sweet, to be respected and so on. This is a restless and future-focused state of mind because whenever it finds something it’s seeking, it either wants more or wants something else.

It’s a very important state of mind because it drives us to learn, to improve at our job, to find a lover, to develop our relationships, to develop ourselves, to explore the world, and so on. But to be seeking all the time is inherently dissatisfying and exhausting. A lot of people are in the seeking mind about 90% of the time.

This is partly because our Western culture is constantly appealing to and therefore strengthening the seeker in us. Advertising and the media are constantly trying to persuade us that happiness is to be found in having the ‘perfect’ body, buying this season’s clothes, having more money or status.

There is another department of our minds, which is always available, although in many people rarely accessed, which is not seeking anything. The non-seeking mind is perfectly content right, here, right now. Accessing it doesn’t require hours of meditation, going through therapy or making a fortune. It’s already there, waiting to be called on. The paradox is that in order to find happiness, you need to stop seeking it.

I do an exercise with people where I get them to say “I am the non-seeking mind” and they experience it instantly. For many people though, this is challenging because they’ve become to attached to the ideas they have of what they need before they can be happy, that to realize that none of those things are actually necessary to be happy right now, can be a bit of a struggle.

But although it’s possible to access the non-seeking mind just by saying that you are it, it’s not easy to stay in it. It’s a not a quick fix, it’s a quick reveal. It reveals to you that on one level, nothing is required in order to be completely content right now.

All the yoga, meditation, mindfulness, tai chi, therapy, dance, art, music, martial arts and gratitude practices are useful for training ourselves to notice and appreciate the present moment, rather than be always seeking more or different.

But if you were non-seeking all the time, you’d never do anything. The real sweet spot is when you integrate the seeking with the non-seeking mind, so that you’re both happy now and looking to develop, learn and grow. A coalition government, if you will. Life, as they say, is all about balance.


If you’d like to understand more about happiness, in two weeks time I’m co-facilitating a course called Exploring What Matters. More details are here.

If you’d like more balance in your workplace, get in touch for a taster session to experience how mindfulness can help.

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