Why are people so unhappy?

Why are people so unhappy?

Tragically, there are large numbers of people in the world who are unhappy because they do not have enough food to eat, do not have enough clothing to wear, do not have a place to live, or reside in an active war-zone. The reflections that follow are not addressed to people in these life situations, although I believe that a change in the thinking and behavior of the rest of us could have an enormous impact on the lives of the most unfortunate among us. I hope to show at least a glimmer of that possibility in what follows.

Some of the major sources of our unhappiness are: the mistaken belief that possession will lead to fulfillment; our lack of oneness with others; and our failure to know our own true nature. I was unhappy for the first several decades of my life, even though I was well-educated, employed in an interesting job, married to a man of the same background as myself and mother of two delightful children. I had a major break-through in happiness when I entered a spiritual community and became a student of my meditation teacher, Sri Chinmoy. Sri Chinmoy was born in Bengal, India (now Bangladesh), in 1931, and came to the West to offer teachings in spirituality in 1964. He passed behind the curtain of Eternity in 2007. Sri Chinmoy is well-known as a peace-visionary, spiritual guide, writer, musician and athlete. As his student, I had a profound experience of being loved, and it is thanks to his love, his example and his instruction that in recent years I have begun to experience genuine happiness.

I am very happy
Because I have conquered myself
And not the world.

I am very happy
Because I have loved the world
And not myself.

I am very happy
Because I have not surrendered
Either to the world or to myself.

Sri Chinmoy1

This poem, though very brief, reveals a few of the most important paths to happiness. Or, to look at the reverse side of the picture, some of the major sources of our unhappiness are the mistaken belief that possession will lead to fulfillment; our lack of a feeling of oneness with others; and our failure to know our own true nature. I will try to convey, in my own words, just a few drops of the vast ocean of wisdom that Sri Chinmoy offered in each of these three areas.

How do we go about not conquering the world? Those of us who live in the West are exposed repeatedly to the misinformation that having more and better possessions will lead us to be happy. It is hard to shake off the belief that if only we could get a higher salary, a more beautiful home, a thinner body and nicer clothes, then we would be happy. This ignorant emphasis on possession often extends even to our beliefs about our relationships. Thus, we want the perfect mate, and think that if we could only possess him, then we would really be happy! Everyone who has tried to live her life according to the belief in the power of possession has discovered its falsity. The pursuit of power is just a variation on the pursuit of possession: We mistakenly believe that if we possess power we will be able to bend others to our will.

When the power of love
Replaces the love of power
Man will have a new name: God.

Sri Chinmoy2

Having grown up in the dog-eat-dog world of New York City, it was easy for me to believe “each man for himself, and may the best man win.” Without stopping to philosophize about it, I focused more and more on my own needs and desires, and on those of my husband and children. Paradoxically as it seemed then, the more my husband and I narrowed our focus to each other, the more miserable we became.

When I started to study with Sri Chinmoy and first heard the word “oneness,” it took some time for me to understand what it meant. I think it means loving the world (not that we should not love ourselves, but that our identification with others and their needs should be the motivating force in our lives). Sri Chinmoy, who unhesitatingly devoted himself to the service of humanity, strongly recommends that we serve others, not only because it is good for them but because it is good for us. I notice that when I “lose myself” in a project that will bring benefit to others, I find happiness effortlessly. When I send a check to UNICEF, I feel good about myself. When I see the world from my son’s point of view, we are both more content.

Well, it sounds great, to conquer ourselves, to love humanity, and to know our own true nature, but how are we going to bring about these remarkable transformations? And what does Sri Chinmoy mean when he wrote, “I have not surrendered/ Either to the world or to myself”? Sri Chinmoy, in company with the most revered sages of the East, teaches that the first steps towards conquering ourselves, loving the world, and realizing the Highest, begin with the daily practice of meditation and prayer. I have found it to be so.

Although still a beginner, after many, many days of practise I have taken a few steps towards conquering myself, am beginning to care about others sincerely, and have occasional glimpses of God within myself and others. My goal is to not surrender to my superficial desires, or to the desires or preferences of others, but to try to know what He wants from me and to do it willingly.

It may take us a long, long time, but I think our unhappiness will end when we all, finally, learn to look for our answers not in our desires, not in our self-interest, but in our highest Selves.

  1. The Divine Hero, London: Watkins Publishing, 2002, pp. 19-20 []
  2. The Wings of Joy, Fireside Books: New York, 1997, p. 107 []
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