Do You Have Weltschmerz?
“Weltschmerz” is difficult to translate but the sentiment of this 200 year-old German word pertains to one’s inability to experience joy because other sentient beings are suffering. Given the ongoing pandemic, increasing divisiveness and societal unrest in addition to regular climate disasters, simply reading any newspaper or social media feed could engender a wicked case of Weltschmerz.
Do you feel guilty about being happy when you think of all of the people who are currently suffering and those people who have suffered and died during the past year?
And is this rational?
I teach a workshop called “Cultivating Authentic Happiness” at the Esalen Institute and the trajectory of the psychological, emotional, spiritual and intellectual roller-coaster on which I lead students often concludes with the realization that happiness is a choice. A glass being either half full or half empty depends on the viewer, not the glass.
Buddhism teaches us that there’s an unsatisfactoriness to human consciousness that is commonly referred to in contemporary psychology as a “hedonic treadmill.” We are constantly searching for happiness but once an object of desire is sated it is quickly replaced by another desire. The joke that I recount in class is: “If sex were so satisfying you would only have to do it once!”
We can all agree that enduring happiness is elusive, but if you (consciously or subconsciously) feel guilty about being happy that would definitely exacerbate the elusiveness.
Thus, given the horrors of the quotidian news cycle, you should ask yourself if you are experiencing some form of “Survivor’s Guilt”? And if so, how can you remedy or at least alleviate it?
Let me ask you a hypothetical question: when you see a glossy airbrushed photo of Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts smiling on the cover of People magazine does your mind say, “Oh, they are rich and beautiful, they must be happy!”? I find it fascinating that the preponderance of people ascribe happiness to outer portraits when we all know that happiness is an inside job. And yet, the subconscious has its own logic — which if analyzed consciously isn’t very logical. Wealth and beauty may provide for a wider range of opportunities, but neither come without their own costs.
My point is that when your mind COMPARES your life to the lives of others, the basic assumptions that it relies on are often false. If you read the scientific studies in Sonja Lyubomirsky’s “The How of Happiness” you will find that there is little correlation between money and happiness.
So if we apply this conversely to Weltschmerz and how the pain of the world “could” affect our own happiness, is it not equally possible that we choose GRATITUDE instead of GUILT? For we all will definitely experience pain and unsatisfactoriness, but doing it preemptively based on the current pain and suffering of others is akin to deciding that the glass is half empty.
Choosing practices that are scientifically proven to keep us at the higher ends of our happiness spectrums — yoga, meditation, loving relationships, eating and sleeping correctly, expressing gratitude etc. — should keep our glasses half full. Feeling Weltschmerz or guilt about being happy will keep our glasses drained.
And if you have already taken my workshop then you know that being of service to other people — particularly those less fortunate who are immediately experiencing pain and suffering — will result in your glass overflowing!
The sooner that we are able to update the operating systems known as our minds, the sooner we will alleviate any guilt for being happy that we may feel during our current world crises.