Worry- How We Keep Ourselves From Happiness

This is the question of all questions. If the Buddha was happy growing up he never would have left his castle, his riches, his wife and child. Studying faith and religion didn’t make him happy. Suffering and starving to cleanse himself didn’t make him happy. There is a general unhappiness that comes from living.

The Buddha had to dedicate his life to a meditative practice and fundamentally shift his understanding of reality to create a sense of supreme contentment. From this view he lived his life fully and completely. His compassion and wisdom was so profound that people could see the transformation in him from long distances away. Haven’t you ever met someone whose character was so serene that you just felt drawn to them hoping it would rub off a little on you?

Those who follow the Buddha’s teachings are trying to establish a life where they can recreate that fundamental shift in mind and find that same supreme contentment called “Nirvana.” Other people pull some of the Buddha’s wisdom and try to balance the mundane life with enough of Buddhist wisdom to be happy enough and engaged enough in life to be satisfied. But even those with no Buddhist background seek their own methods in prayer, therapy, yoga, personal introspection, etc.

We all want to be happy. And yet, happiness always seems to be over the next hill or momentary like a bouquet of flowers. Nothing is more fleeting and elusive than happiness.

Why is that?

The Buddha postulated an answer in four parts—The Four Noble Truths.

  • TRUTH 1– (dukkha) There is “dukkha” (a general an abiding unsatisfactory nature of being or suffering).
  • TRUTH 2– (dukkha samudaya) The cause for this sorrow comes from unconducive relationships with the world around us. For example, some suffering comes from the big anxieties that come from the very nature of living: aging, illness and eventually death. Other come from wrongly valued attachments (or thirsts/cravings) to the world around us.
  • TRUTH 3– (dukkha nirodha)In the Buddhist model, the solution (or intervention) to end suffering is a fundamental shift in world view that revalues or correctly values the connections we have with the world so that we can engage in the fullest and most satisfactory life possible.
  • TRUTH 4– (dukkha nirodha gamini patipada magga) The process (or intervention) for that there is a path that leads to the end of this “suffering.” It is this “path” (magga)  that is the practice of Buddhists. This path has eight parts that break down into three categories of educated wisdom (panna), ethical conduct (sila) and an introspective meditative practice (samadhi) .

But whether you take a Buddhist path or your own, we are all working out the Gordian Knot that holds us back from our own happiness.


In the Buddhist model of living, there are three poisons that are at the root of all negative mindsets that directly translate to hatred (dosa), greed (lobha) and delusions (moha). Perhaps a more understandable translation of these concepts would be aversion, clinging and ignorance.

In other philosophies these three categories may be different, but there is one commonality between them all and that is a maladaptive mind of negative fear energy. Those who are avoidant do so out of a fear response. Even anger, is a secondary response of fear whereby direct fear works on a flight from danger and when that is not possible anger takes over to fight for control of the environment.

Craving and clinging are also fear based responses. The need to have comes from the fear of not having. In the world of survival access to resources like food, shelter, mates, etc. are essential. Even when we have plenty of resources our brains are conditions to continually want more hoping that it will create more security and safety. This is even true if the only gain from accumulation is status, prestige or self-image.

The “I” exists to bring order and structure in our understanding of the universe. And to that end, even Buddhism does not discount the usefulness of “I.” Buddhism (and many other philosophies) conclude that “I” is not a solid unchanging thing but instead of a reference point from which our forever-changing process of being operates from.

Imagine a GPS. We use the icon on the GPS to tell us where we are, but we do not think of that as actually us, but a virtual representation. However, if we have been told our entire lives that this icon WAS part of our identity, it may be difficult to understand later on that this is a faulty conclusion. To be told the universe as you know it to be true isn’t becomes impossible for some to accept.

And this is perhaps why the most cunning of all the fear conditions is ignorance. The term “moha” refers to the conditioned and wilful ignorance we have such as the concept of “I”, of being a part of the world, of ignoring our mortality, etc. It is comforting to think of our “self” as being separate from the body. We indulge in thinking it is a permanent and forever object because to think of it ending is uncomfortable for most. Our relationship to the world around us makes more sense, because our identity is an anchor that fixes us within it. The embracing the concept of “no self” (anatta) can create enough disequilibrium in our world view that it is overwhelming and too scary to accept. What is the difference between me and that? What do I have influence over? What do I have no control over?

All of the three poisons in the Buddhist philosophical and psychological model can all be summed up as fear.


Fear is not bad in itself. It is a fundamental emotion that has evolved for our survival. Fear is the basic automatic response from the perception of actual or perceived danger. This response is what has kept species alive for millions of years.

If a fish swims up to a coral reef and finds some food, the fish will remember that place and come back for more because its pleasure senses were stimulated and its needs for food were met. If that same fish goes to another coral reef and almost gets eaten by an eel, the fish will remember that location with thirteen times the intensity because his fear-survival response will kick in.

This is easy to understand in simple term, but our brains work on these fears and needs motivations our entire life. We build our understanding of the universe by them. The terms “this is good” and “that is bad” are values we assign based on fears created and needs met.

If someone is afraid of spiders, It is not a universal concept. Not all people are afraid of spiders. There is an association that takes place: spiders= bites=pain or death. That fear of pain or death is a motivator. But even further there has to have been some catalyst to take that thought and make it a truth.

Even if the fear isn’t a phobia or neurosis, we work on the same formula. A parent tells us that we need to do our homework so that we can get into college, get a good job, make good money, have a good family and good life. If we accept that thought process as true, and throughout our life we create and build our lives on that hypothesis—how easily are we to give that core belief up as an adult?

Sometimes our lives are based on holding on to the sufferings we know than facing the fears of the world we don’t know. What would the world be like if I gave up the security of my job? What would it be like if I tried a career that I might fail at? What would it be like to give away all my money? What would it be like if I was not important anymore?

In Freud’s model the mind is an iceberg, where the small conscious thought is only a sliver of the unconscious. Just like our body there is so much going on that we are not even aware of. We are unaware of the lifetime of internalised processes that have formed our understanding of the world. Many of these thoughts, notions, values and beliefs were created without total awareness, understanding or wisdom; and yet we not only refuse to change them, we refuse to even challenge the notions when new evidence is presented.


This definition can be really difficult for people. If fear can be both evaluated as appropriate and inappropriate then how to we know what fear to change and which not to? How do I know what things to appropriate desire and want and which are harmful? How much unattachment is unhealthy and how much is healthy?

First, I think it is important to add some words for clarity. From this point, I will call fear that is a basic response fear and “worry” to be the word for inappropriate fear. Worry is a special form of fear that elongates fear ‘s anticipatory and memory experience. It is the fear that has moved from basic animal instincts of the limbic system and processed into the cerebral cortex. According to psychiatrist Dr. Ed Hallowell, worry is when we have made fear complex and we feel vulnerable and powerless.

So if we were to look at fear and judge its appropriateness, we have to look at a few factors. Professor Shelly Kagan, PhD, teaches a course on “Death and Dying” at Yale University. His criteria for appropriate fear are an interesting one. 1). In order to be afraid of something the “thing” you are afraid of must be “bad,” 2) There must be a positivity of that bad state happening, 3) There must be a certain amount of uncertainty involved.

When we look at the original definition of fear there is a “perception of danger” involved. Even a mild fear of theft of something inconsequential (e.g. pocket change left on the table at a restaurant in a shady neighbourhood while you got to the restroom), involves the primal understanding that there is a taking of resources. The fact that we do not fret too much just shows that we give an appropriate value of fear to the consequences. Nevertheless, in Kagan’s model—the bad is the loss of income resources, we have an expectation that his will happen, we have a reasonable certainty that this event will occur.

If our situation is different, such as a tiger attack in your child’s school, the criteria is slightly less appropriate (unless you lived in Ohio in October 2011). While being attacked by a tiger is bad, there is not positivity that coming across a tiger would result in an attack, AND there is normally an extremely low chance of a tiger showing up in a school classroom anywhere in America.

But our lives are so much more complex than gross examples of tigers or loose change. We have built layers and layers of conclusions, judgements, beliefs, and values throughout our lives that it would take ten lifetimes to look at each one and ten more lifetimes to identify all of them to be put in queue.

In psychology, most interventions would start with the most maladaptive fears and issues and work back. Other interventions make structural shifts in processes and allow the changes in understanding and acting come from WHAT we are doing rather than HOW we are thinking about it. In any intervention (or treatment), the purpose is to make shifts in maladaptive thinking and create new adaptive skills and insights. The goal is to release the worries with confidence, competence and new view.

Nevertheless, some worries are fundamental to our core understanding of the universe and people cannot let go. Some worries are created not by habituation but my chemical imbalances in the brain. In these cases, psychology can only help my mediating these conditions instead of helping the client heal themselves completely.


Buddhism, unlike psychology, does not meet the person in their environment, but takes them fundamentally out of their environment and rehabilitates the brain to work, act and interact differently with the universe.

This is done in a three pronged approach.

First by a meditative practice that offers a new point of view of us. This introspective look inwards reveals frictions of the universe rubbing against our egos. The ego (or the identity of “I”) was stated earlier to be seen as solid by our fear. These negative energies and fears create mass within the ego to push against.

Imagine a ball. It is heavy and rough. When you rub your hands over it repeatedly it creates heat from friction. When you lift it, it creates resistance from gravity. This is how many egos are. As part of the practice, Buddhists learn to polish the ball but also rubs off more and more of the mass until the ball is smooth, small and light. It no longer creates friction when objects rub it. It no longer offers resistance when it moves through the universe.

The Buddha and all those who have enlightened have rubbed away the ball completely. This is the achievement of the arahant Buddha (the one who has done the work and achieved enlightenment).

The second prong in practice is ethical conduct. We are our actions and our actions become who we are. While we always see the image of Buddhists meditating, it is only a small time in their day. The rest of their day, they must take that work sitting on the cushion and apply it to real life. Remember, it is about living a fully engaged life of quality.

The third aspect Buddhist development is wisdom. Without understanding of the worth of what you are doing, then the application of meditation and ethical living will still result in misery. It is important that a mind is always learning, questioning, opening itself up to possibilities and the world around itself.


The Buddha said that he only taught the understanding of suffering and the cessation of suffering. This is because the Buddha understood that a self-sustaining happiness came from contentment of acceptance, compassion, unconditional friendliness, and sympathetic joy. Those qualities cannot be developed like a muscle. They must be actualized by the removal of fetters in the mind. A blindfolded man does not see by trying to see better, but by removing his blindfold. A tied up man does not gain mobility by flexing his muscles to get stronger, but by freeing himself from his bonds.

The Buddhist concept is that we are inherently happy people who have conditioned ourselves by fears to see the world from a blindfolded and bound point of view.

Most people do not even see the worries in their mind. Most actively seek out worry and find benefit in anxiety and rumination. Worry (whether forward focused anxiety or backward focused rumination) holds to repetitive thinking and ideation of negative outcomes.

The Swedish proverb states “Worry gives a small thing big shadows.”

The brain perceives some sort of danger (even slight danger) and then processes it up from the reptilian mind to the cerebral cortex where it creates a story that seems a plausible justification for that fear. It then shoots it down back to the reptilian portion of the brain like a bad government bureaucracy to be processed all over again. While it seems simple enough to stop, when the brain is in danger mode it is releasing hormones and endorphins to prepare to protect itself. Those endorphins feel pretty good sometimes.

In short—the brain doesn’t want to stop. It likes to feel even when the feeling is bad.

In 2006, Psychologist Dr. Steven Shearer, PhD and Dr. Lauren Gordon, M.D., from Franklin Square Hospital Center in Baltimore, Md., wrote an article that share some typical beliefs and irrational assumptions by worriers.

Distortions Characteristic of Patients with Excessive Worry

Intolerance for uncertainty:
“If I think about this enough, I should feel a sense of certainty.”
Intolerance for discomfort:
“If I can just think this through, I won’t have to feel this way.”
Inflated sense of culpability:
“If bad things happen, it is my fault.”
Distorted risk assessments/emotional reasoning:
“If it feels likely, it is likely. If it feels dangerous, it is dangerous.”
Perfectionism about mistakes:
“Mistakes mean I screwed up because I was not in control.”
Pessimism/presumed incapability:
“Bad things will happen to me and I will not be able to deal with it.”
Misconstrued virtue:
“Worry shows how deeply I care about my children.”
Overvaluation of the thought process:
“Because I have a thought, it is important and I must give it my full attention.”
Implicit magical beliefs about worry:
“Worry prevents bad things from happening. It keeps me from being blindsided. It keeps loved ones safer.”
Worry about worrying too much:
“I am out of control. I am making myself sick. I have got to stop worrying.”


Oh, if only it were that easy. Few of us will reach enlightenment. We all have been building up our irrational fears since birth. The more fears we have the more complex our thinking and label becomes to keep those ideas, core values and world views. This isn’t just for people with clinical neurotic behavior—this is everyone. Every single person in the world is dealing with the same exact issues of fear and survival with a brain organ that is smarter than we understand it to be.

We will never be able to “just stop worrying” unless we do a LOT of work. Even then, the smoother the balls the harder it is to keep hold of. The smaller the ball the harder it is to see. It is a process that is very similar to doing maintenance on a car that is driving down the road. And that is why Buddhism says, “Hey, pull over and pop the hood to take a look.”

Perhaps you didn’t find the quick answer you wanted on how to be happy reading this article. I never thought that you would. But I hope that you were able to find some good questions to hold on to and think about so that you have a good starting point along the path to happiness.


Tags: , , , , ,

Categories: Buddha, Divorce, Ethics, Family, Four Noble Truths, Lifestyle, Marriage, Meditation, Noble Eightfold Path, Philosophy, Psychology, Relationships, Uncategorized


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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4 Comments on “Worry- How We Keep Ourselves From Happiness”

  1. John
    November 4, 2011 at 6:45 pm #

    A great summary piece and spot-on in the opinion of an “old” worrier. Experience teaches me that when I want to be in control (including wanting to not be in control) I set myself up for unhappiness and unleash fears about major and minor things. Focusing on here and now, relinquishing attachments, practicing ethical actions, being open to teaching — valuable steps toward happiness. Thanks for the post!!!

  2. November 19, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    From a person who is only just beginning to research Buddhism, this really put things in perspective, and brought a lot of stuff home to me. Great article!

  3. Matt Basil
    December 16, 2011 at 5:05 am #

    “Worry gives a small thing big shadows.”so true!thanks for sharing your ideas and information with us!and just keep blogging!


  1. ReWrite Your Stories and Be Happy | Applied Buddhism - June 10, 2014

    […] are to blame for our fear: an angry dog, a mugger, a cheating lover. Sometimes, oftentimes, the causes are internal. The story of “I” that we create focuses very often on how the universe is acting on us. The […]

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