Ezra Bayda on “What Blocks Happiness”

An exclusive excerpt from Ezra Bayda‘s new book, Beyond Happiness: The Zen Way to True Contentment:

Genuine happiness is not the same as the absence of unhappiness. This is an important point. We can be gliding along through life with our good health, a decent job, and satisfactory relationships but still not even come close to experiencing the depth of equanimity and appreciation that are possible for us.

When we’re caught up in the complacency of our routines, living our life on autopilot, even if we’re somewhat buffered from being actively unhappy, this is still the classic case of skating on thin ice. We’re oblivious to what is really going on; all it takes is one crack in the ice—a serious threat to our health, a lost job, a relationship failure, or even something as small as being criticized or cut off on the freeway—to show us how fragile our personal “happiness” really is. We can then see how it’s just a false sense of stability, based on favorable, yet temporary, external circumstances.

Even if things seem fine on the surface when we follow our usual behaviors, there may still be a deep well of unaddressed dissatisfaction. For instance, people surveyed in certain countries indicate that on the whole they are happy, yet at the same time, these countries have high suicide rates. The point is, it’s possible to believe we are happy, and believe we know what makes us happy, and then pursue behaviors based on that. But the truth is, we don’t know, and we are likely to follow strategies of behavior that bring us just the opposite.

We may believe, for example, that being in control will bring us stability and happiness, or that being liked or financially successful will make us happy. But when we pursue these strategies it’s like skating on the thin ice, gliding along believing that our temporary taste of personal happiness will last indefinitely. Sooner or later, however, the anxious quiver in our being will come to the surface, and we may feel the ache of the emptiness of our pursuits, or the nagging sense that something is missing. Yet, until we recognize exactly how our present way of living blocks us from the deeper experience of happiness, we will not be motivated to live any differently.

The real question we need to ask ourselves is: why do we continue to follow behaviors that don’t bring us real happiness? The answer lies in the basic human condition: that is, we are born with the innate craving for safety, security, and control—this is an integral part of our survival mechanism. We are also born with an aversion to discomfort and a natural desire for comfort and pleasure. Given these basic human predispositions, it makes sense that our learned strategies of behavior are geared to ensure that our cravings and desires are met.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with trying to be safe or comfortable. The problem begins when our survival mode takes over and becomes our main motivation. When that happens, our other natural urges—curiosity, appreciation, and living from our true openhearted nature—are pushed aside, and consequently, our lives become narrower and increasingly less satisfying. Paradoxically, we continue to believe that our survival-based control strategies will make us happy, so we keep on trying harder or seeking approval; yet these very behaviors often bring us the most dissatisfaction.

Opening our eyes to what we’re doing is not always easy. Our habits of behavior, like trying harder and seeking approval, can become so deeply conditioned that we can hardly see them. Even when our behaviors don’t make us happy, we often don’t notice because we so firmly believe that they will! One very effective way to cut through our usual blindness is to ask the following questions: “Am I truly happy right now?” and “What blocks happiness?” To reflect on these two questions only takes a few moments, and if you do it several times a day, over a period of time you will begin to observe, very specifically, all the behaviors that directly block genuine happiness.

Trying harder and seeking approval are two of the most widespread conditioned behaviors for achieving happiness. Almost equally common are our many addictive behaviors, starting with our addictions to pleasure and diversions. In themselves, pleasure and diversions are fine, and they can certainly make us feel good. But whenever we have addictive behaviors—whether to food, alcohol, sex, or working out—we are driven by the compulsion to keep returning to whatever we’re addicted to, in the promise that it will continue to make us feel good.

Pursuing our addictive behaviors highlights the very essence of the human tendency to misunderstand happiness. We follow these seductive behaviors because they seem to promise us happiness. And to some degree, they fulfill their promise, in that we feel personally happy when we experience sensual pleasure or the hit of endorphins. But the fulfillment of that promise is always temporary, and it is always based on a temporarily benevolent external environment. As long as the environment doesn’t turn against us, we think our life is okay, and we don’t do anything to change the situation. Nor do we address the underlying unease out of which the addictive behaviors arise: why upset the applecart when things seem to be okay? Thus, we remain on the treadmill of personal happiness/unhappiness. When we don’t feel so good, we find a fix, and then we think we are happy again. The cycle goes on and on; meanwhile, genuine happiness eludes us.

We will continue to pursue the conditioned strategies of behavior that we hope will bring us happiness as long as we believe they are working. And because they sometimes do bring us some degree of personal happiness, these behaviors can get reinforced for a long time. That’s how people get caught on the treadmill of their attachments and routines for a lifetime without making any effort to change. Paradoxically, we’re actually fortunate if life occasionally serves us a big dose of disappointment, because it forces us to question whether our attachments and strategies really serve us. When we truly see that what we’ve been doing simply isn’t effective in bringing us genuine happiness, we may be motivated enough to take the next step.

Each of us has to examine where and how we get in our own way, observing all the ways we block fundamental happiness. Specifically, we need to look at all of our conditioned behaviors—our strategies of control and our addictive tendencies. We’ve spent our whole life believing these things would give us happiness, when in fact if we look deeply, they’ve done just the opposite. But until we see this clearly—until we’ve seen the many things we do to get in our own way—we won’t be motivated to go beyond our small measures of personal happiness, toward cultivating the roots of true contentment.

Ezra Bayda lives and teaches at the Zen Center of San Diego. He is the author of Being Zen, At Home in the Muddy Water, Saying Yes to Life (Even the Hard Parts), and Zen Heart. Initially trained in the Gurdjieff tradition, Ezra has practiced Zen meditation since 1970 and has been teaching Zen since 1995. He is also the founder of the Santa Rosa Zen Group in Santa Rosa, California. For more information, please visit www.zencentersandiego.org.


  1. Arthur Hernandez says

    I once heard a sermon on bondage to sin. The minister spoke about addiction. I said to the minister that we should choose our addictions wisely. He neither agreed nor disagreed. I also told him he was likely addicted to public speaking. Since we are hardwired to seek out pleasure and avoid pain, seems intelligent to seek healthy addictions.. like reading shambhala. Maybe I could get addicted to being of service to others.