Screw Happiness

This past November, I was given the opportunity to speak at the TEDxGeorgiaTech Student Speaker Salon!

If you’d rather read than watch, the text of the speech can be found below.

Performance of “Posters” Spoken Word Poem

I am tired of posters.

Everywhere I go. Every doctor’s office, professor’s desk, waiting room, classroom, bedroom, everyplace that I go; they follow me.

“Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

“Don’t be afraid to be different

“Do what makes you happy

They don’t tell you if you miss the moon, you’ll die with seconds in the vacuum of space,

If everyone just focused on being different, then we’d all be hipsters

And do what makes you happy

Look, these phrases are simple and catchy

And yet, repeated endlessly until I can no longer quite remember what they once meant.

I am sick of these posters.

Shoved down our throats at every occasion – every convocation and celebration – a culmination of an entire generation’s worth of brainwashing.

These grains of truth turned into meaningless adages, hiding behind framed stock images.

Is this what I’ve come to?

I’ve spent so much of my life trying to be happy,

told to “do what I love” and to “love every moment”

And yet I’m on a treadmill of goals and wishes, that just goes on and on and on,

wondering why I’m not able to reach that one trophy I so desperately crave.

Not realizing that it’s literally two steps in front of me, in front of this machine that I can’t seem to turn off.

We are taught that happiness comes from ‘defining who you are,’ from ‘following your passions,’

as if happiness is just some hedonistic reward for being unique and different.

Almost entirely neglecting the meaning, the purpose, the importance

that comes from suffering, from pain, from giving.

For it’s only when we’ve finally lost ourselves that we stand to gain everything.

We’ve become so obsessed with passion, that we’ve forgotten about compassion,

so self-centered that we’ve lost our ability to center our Selves.

I’m done with these posters.

I’m over being told to keep running.

I am ready to turn off my treadmill.

I am here. 

Hello everyone, my name is Suraj. I’m a writer, a student here at Georgia Tech and perhaps most meaningful to me, an instructor for a form of meditation called heartfulness.

What you just heard was a spoken word poem I wrote, called “Posters.”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve felt immersed in a culture that is obsessed with happiness. As a campus and a generation, we are constantly told to do what makes us happy, to follow our passions. And yet, despite these slogans for an era that is arguably more connected, more comfortable and more affluent than ever before in our history, so many of us feel empty and unfulfilled. We have more than 300 million people around the world who are affected by depression, which is the leading cause of disability worldwide.

Why is that? For so many years, the question I began to ask myself was, why, despite the constant narrative to be happy, am I not? What haven’t I figured out?

First – I had replaced happiness with pleasure.

If I look back at all the moments in my life that I remember as being “happy” – they fall into two categories.

There are some that were exhilarating – getting the PlayStation 2, spending a full day at a music festival with my friends, winning my first high school debate competition – and yet they almost always were extreme highs that were inevitably followed by equally extreme lows.

There are other moments that were more subtle – the first time I picked up my cousin and held him in my arms, the smile given everyday by the person at the front desk at my internship – and these moments were ones where I felt a sense of joy that seemed to last so much longer.

Neurologically speaking – these exhilarating moments include the release of dopamine – a “pleasure” hormone which gets triggered anytime we achieve a goal or talk about our accomplishments. It gives us this amazing high but then immediately comes down, like a sugar rush.

In comparison, the more subtle moments are explained by serotonin or oxytocin which are released from more unselfish behaviors (ie. charity) or through acts of trust and bonding. The difference is that the effects tend to be longer lasting.

For so long, when I thought about happiness, I had almost wholly replaced it for these exhilarating moments. In my first year of college, I remember dreading having to come back to my room, because I spent the whole day interacting with friends, exploring events on campus, but knew that the inevitable crash was awaiting me.

Second – I had made happiness about myself.

When I was small and would have nightmares or growing pains, I still remember how my mom would hear me crying in the middle of the night and rush over to make sure everything was okay. Those moments at 2am were definitely not happy. I’m sure no parent enjoys being sleep deprived because their child is waking up every few hours. But in that moment, no matter how cranky or unhappy my mom felt, she came out of love.

Over the past few years, I’ve spent many days having existential crises thinking about myself and whether I’m really happy, often sinking into a deeper and deeper hole of self-doubt. When I found myself in this position last year, one of the most unexpected things that helped me was starting a garden in my balcony.

For the first time, rather than waking up and thinking about myself and how I wish I could sleep more or how I’m dreading the day, etc. – I found that my focus was shifted to taking care of the plants outside. The simple act of watering was pulling me out of self-obsession and helping to connect me to a world beyond myself, providing a perspective on my own struggles. Happiness was no longer just about me.

This shift from ourselves to others is further confirmed through a study conducted at Harvard by Dr. Michael Norton. When two groups were taken – one told to spend $20 on themselves and another to spend the same money but for other people – the group that spent it on others reported consistently higher levels of happiness. Even beyond feelings of connection to others, studies have found that such prosocial spending can have longer lasting, positive effects on our stress and physical health.

Then why do so many of us spend most of our resources on ourselves and not others?

Finally – I was caught on this treadmill.

As someone who has meditated for the last 4 years and taught meditation for the past 2 years, I have often been asked the question and even asked the question to myself “If I feel content, how will I accomplish anything? What will happen to my ambitions?” as if there was no way for me to be fulfilled and still aspire to improve.

As a result, I found myself constantly falling into the trap of “If only I …”

“If only my friend would just apologize. If only my parents would let me go to this party. If only I get into this college, get the right internship, the right job, the right location …” Before you know it, you get lost in this cycle – and implicit in the statement is “If only I do X … then I’ll be happy, then I’ll be okay.”

In the words of the “Happiest Man in the World,” a 71 year-old Buddhist Monk named Matthieu Ricard, “Happiness is not the pursuit of an endless succession of experiences. That’s a recipe for exhaustion more than happiness. Happiness is a way of being. …”

For me, this is the role of meditation.

I have spent most of my life being conditioned by external factors telling me the best way of “finally being happy” is something that is outside of you that you just have to keep working for.

Without realizing that pausing, taking a step back, and looking within

can help unravel and expand my understanding beyond the chaos of the moment.

When we want to get to know someone really well and the conversation is getting good, we put away our distractions, give them our full attention and just keenly listen to what they have to say.

Meditation gives me the opportunity to do the same with myself. When I meditate, I put away my distractions, take that moment to pause, relax and finally just listen to what my heart has to say.

The more that I’ve done this, the more that I find myself letting that state of calm, of balance become my natural way of being.

This isn’t just my experience. In studies from Yale, Johns Hopkins and universities around the world, researchers are finding how a daily meditation practice is able to physically change our brains, reducing our stress, increasing our cognitive capability and so much more.

The most important part to recognize is that it’s something that is accessible to everyone. You don’t need to free up space on the weekend to go to the mountains. You can do it before a test, in a conference room, anytime, anywhere.

Going back to the question I asked myself: why, despite the constant narrative to be happy, am I not?

I realized it was because I had replaced happiness with pleasure. I had made happiness about myself. I was caught on the treadmill.

For me, I’ve found that getting off the treadmill means,

moving away from seeing happiness as pleasure,

shifting the focus away from me to include others,

and it’s about moving to a place where happiness becomes way of being,

using meditation as a tool for achieving that state of perfect balance.

Ultimately, my hope is that all of us can screw being told to find happiness, to pursue that endless succession of experiences. That we can each say that we’re done running on our treadmills, and to just be here.

If you liked the talk, please consider sharing the video with your friends and family!

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Suraj Sehgal View All →

I am a student, a traveler, an activist, a meditation instructor…. and a blogger!
Come join me on my journey.

7 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I felt I was hearing myself…number of things were just part of me…Congratulations Surat for such a down to earth very focused talk …simple and stage forward…thank you….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed your speech, very thoughtful. Well spoken, well written and very insightful. Meditation, when practiced regularly, really does affect us in a positive way, mentally, emotionally and therefore physically as well. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful Ted Talk. Great job! I hope it reaches many. 🙂


  3. I didn’t watched the video but did read out what you have written and I couldn’t agree more.
    There is no need to run after happiness as if a sprinter races towards the finish line as soon as the whistle is blown. Happiness can be earned by so many means and methods you have explained are brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I actually watched your TED talk (finally!! And now I’m upto reading your blog). I absolutely love your writing style and relate to it very much. Such simple words but such a deeper meaning and I’m absolutely looking forward to you new writings! I’m glad I came across you and had the courage to connect to you!

    Liked by 1 person

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