Zen philosopher explains why “don’t worry, be happy” is toxic advice

Have you ever been told to “don’t worry, be happy” and your problems will just go away?
Here’s how the idea usually goes:
When you’re not happy, or when you’re not satisfied, or even when you’re depressed, you can make the decision to be happy instead. You have the choice to be happy or sad – and, given the fact that you only have limited time in this life, which one do you want to pick? Happy, of course.
So, “always choose to be happy.”
Happiness seems to be the ultimate goal in life for just about everyone. Self-help gurus have sprung up all over the place telling you to think positive, pursue your passion and set goals so that you can become happier.
The problem with the relentless pursuit of happiness is that making it your top priority can actually be to your detriment.
The influential author and Zen philosopher Alan Watts explain the downside of trying too hard to be happy with the ideas of “the law of reversed effort”, or the “backward law”.
Watts explains it as the notion that in all sorts of contexts, from our personal lives to politics, all this trying to make everything right is a big part of what’s wrong. We’ve shared 11 quotes from Watts below which suggest that the harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed.
Before getting to the 11 quotes by Watts, here’s a brilliant passage by Oliver Burkeman about the downside of trying too hard to find happiness, from his book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
“The startling conclusion at which they had all arrived, in different ways, was this: that the effort to try to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy. They didn’t see this conclusion as depressing, though. Instead, they argued that it pointed to an alternative approach, a ‘negative path’ to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to learn to stop running quite so hard from them.”
The key point is this:
Life ends up giving you balance whether you want it or not. The happy times never last forever. No one gets everything they want.
You need to accept failure and sadness on occasion in order to be able to enjoy the successes and happier times.
Here are 11 quotes by Watts.
  1. “Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.” – Alan Watts.
  2. “Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone.” – Alan Watts.
  3. “To have faith is to trust yourself to the water. When you swim you don’t grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead, you relax, and float.” – Alan Watts.
  4. “The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless.” – Alan Watts.
  5. “Things are as they are. Looking out into the universe at night, we make no comparisons between right and wrong stars, nor between well and badly arranged constellations.” – Alan Watts.
  6. “No one is more dangerously insane than one who is sane all the time: he is like a steel bridge without flexibility, and the order of his life is rigid and brittle.” – Alan Watts.
  7. “We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree.” – Alan Watts.
  8. “Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified.” – Alan Watts.
  9. “Only words and conventions can isolate us from the entirely undefinable something which is everything.” – Alan Watts.
  10. “…tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present since it is in the present and only in the present that you live.” – Alan Watts.
  11. “Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way” – Alan Watts. 

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