The Secret to a Happy Life – Don’t Get Too Attached?

by Dr. Monroe Mann, PhD, Esq, MBA, LLM, ME
Founder, Break Diving, Inc.

We have all felt some type of heartbreak in our lives, either from an unrequited love or, just as often, from a dashed dream.  The question is: why does it hurt so much? 

The answer, according to Buddhist philosophy, and bolstered through modern psychological research, is attachment.  By attachment, I mean the strong attachment we have to people, things, and dreams.  As a result of this attachment, when these things are torn from us, emotional pain ensues.

One of the tenets of Buddhism is that ‘life is struggle’ or that ‘life is suffering’.  Given that, according to Buddhists, one of the keys to overcoming this struggle (or at least, surviving it gracefully), and one of the keys to reaching ‘nirvana’, is a concept called ‘non-attachment’. 

For those of you who have studied Buddhism, or traveled abroad to Buddhist monasteries or temples, you know that the life of a Buddhist monk is quite simple: utter simplicity and a solitary focus on life at the monastery.  In essence, monks believe that the less attached to things in life, the easier this life becomes.  For example, if you do not have physical possessions, you will not mourn their eventual loss.  Further, if you do not create close personal bonds (romantic and otherwise) with other people, you will avoid being hurt.  In other words, by removing the attachment, you remove the potential for hurt. 

Now, should we live a life completely devoid of attachments?  Is that what’s best for us?

This question was studied more scientifically in 1958 with the experiments of John Bowlby.  His research helped create what is now known as ‘attachment theory’.  This theory states that much of the way we interact with others as adults is related to how much love and attention we received from our parents when we were children. 

Ultimately, attachment theory helps to explain how we as humans react when in relationships, and in particular, how we react when such relationships deteriorate, or are torn from us.  What Bowlby’s research tended to prove is that those children who had doting and loving parents, i.e. parents who were always around, generally had more trusting and close relations with other adults later in life.  On the other hand, those children who had difficult and distant relations with their parents generally had more distrust of others, resulting in less attachment to other adults later in life, often due to fear of abandonment. 

The question, of course, is: which is better? 

From a Buddhist point of view, our lives will be far less emotional and painful if we never develop strong relationships with others in the first place.  However, this type of life is often lonely and overly solitary.  On the other hand, by developing strong, attached relations to others, we create a warmth that allows us to more easily get through each day, but… when that relationship ends (as it inevitably will, either through break ups, estrangement, or death), pain is going to rush in.

So, is attachment good in the short term, despite the inevitable pain we are likely to experience in the future, or is it best to keep our distance from close relationships to avoid the nearly certain eventual pain in the future?  Is there perhaps a way to have attachments to others, but in a way that will result in dulled or muted effects when that person or thing leaves?  If so, does that ‘attachment light’ dampen the strength and efficacy of the relationship because we are dampening the emotional connection from the outset?  Or are we soundly insulating ourselves from the devastating emotional crash of a future departure?

These questions are important to ask, and even more important to answer.  Failing to consider the impact of attachment theory on your life and relationships can cause you unnecessary pain, either in the short term (through loneliness) or the long term (via the leaving).  So let’s investigate together some possible answers to these questions.

First, are you a solitary person or a more social person?  If you enjoy solitude, is it because you are scared of getting close to others, or because you genuinely prefer the solitude?   If you are not a solitary person, is this because you can’t bear the thought of being alone, or are you capable of exhibiting some sense of independence from others?   

In both situations, it is clear that both extremes are probably not the ideal.  While some may enjoy a truly monastic life, even Buddhist monks are allowed to abandon their vows a number of times without penalty.  In other words, for most people (and even the occasional monk), having some type of close relationships with others is essential for sanity. 

Similarly, while many of us enjoy being around others, to do so constantly serves only to separate ourselves from ourselves. For example, as I become overly reliant on others, I then fail to get to know the true me. This situation is often merely a bandaid to cover up our fears of being alone.

Alas, what comes first—the chicken or the egg?

I personally vacillate back and forth between both a desire for solitude and a desire to be with others.  Am I better off never having a girlfriend and never getting married so that I don’t have to deal with the (probable) eventual heart break, or am I better off diving right in to the communal matrimonial life and always (potentially) having someone there for me, by my side?  Perhaps I’ll never have a clear answer to these two questions, for all of the foregoing reasons.

However, as we proceed through life, we can take steps to try to have it both ways. 

On one hand, perhaps we should strive to have many friends and have a significant other and always try to develop closer relationships with those in our lives.  On the other hand, to ignore the fact that these closer relationships and the collecting of ‘things’ are also leading us towards pain and suffering when they end or break is foolish. 

We must be cognizant of the fact (and always remember) that our lives here on earth are temporal.  Nothing is forever, not even a diamond (for it will eventually degrade to graphite).  While we all want to believe that some things last forever (and while we can all hope they do, and make every effort to that end), the saner solution is to always remember that all things come to an end… while also not living so Spartanly that our every waking day is completely void of creature comforts. 

This all sounds a bit depressing, right?  But it shouldn’t be. 

First, by simply recognizing this fact that all things come to an end, you become a lot saner.  Too many of us live our lives refusing to acknowledge even our own mortality.  The more we each can recognize that all things on this earth come to an end, the easier it is to remain ever so slightly non-attached.  As a result, you won’t put all your emotional eggs in a basket that you know is eventually going to break. 

Second, every end is a new beginning.  I often live abroad, and when I do, I of course become attached to the place I last lived.  When I return to that city, I end up trying to find an apartment in the same part of town, and on the same subway line, and near the same restaurants.  Inevitably, it doesn’t work out, and I end up in another part of town. At first, I’m chagrined.  Soon, though, a few weeks go by, and I suddenly realize how fond I’ve become of my ‘new normal’.  I still remember the old part of town, but now I have a new part of town, with new memories.  Life is like that all the time—we get so attached to what was that we fail to realize that what could be may actually be an improvement. 

To conclude, here are some suggestions to help you incorporate this all into your lives:
1. Look around your home and discard or give away as much as you can.  The more you can get rid of now, the easier your life will be later.  Even if you just put it into a storage locker downtown, if you can declutter and get it out of your sight, you are already practicing ‘non-attachment’.

2. Consider your friendships.  Do you have hundreds of barely-there acquaintances?  Or perhaps just one really close friend?  In both situations, try to expand your horizons: try to become closer to your acquaintances so you have a stronger support network, and similarly, try to expand beyond that one close friend so you have a few more to lean on during tougher times.

3. If you have a significant other, do not rely on that person for ‘your everything’.  If the other person is the only bread winner, try to get a part-time job.  If you seem to spend all your time with this person, change that.  Start hanging out with friends too, and while you’re at it, find some hobbies you love to do by yourself as well. 

The pattern should be clear: don’t be completely monastically non-attached to everyone and everything, and by the same token, don’t get so crazily attached to any one person or any one thing that its sudden disappearance totally and completely destroys you.  I know, easier said that done.

My ultimate hope is simply that this article helps you move closer to finding for yourself that perfect balance between attachment and aloofness that will allow you to live a fulfilling life, replete with supportive people, but also with enough emotional variety that you never become paralyzed by the inevitable losses in your life.  It’s not an easy balancing act, but it’s one we should all strive to master by life’s end, or ideally, much sooner!

–Dr. Monroe Mann, PhD, Attorney, MBA, ME holds a doctorate in psychology and is the author of “Time Zen”, “Successful New Year”, and “T.R.U.S.T.”.  He is the founder and coding projects manager at BreakDiving.io, the most inspiring social media site on the web.  More info: monroemann.com; breakdiving.io; youtube.com/monroemann


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