In India, people catch monkeys by putting nuts and fruits in heavy jars with narrow necks. When a monkey puts its hand into the jar and takes hold of the food, the neck is so narrow that the animal can’t remove its clenched fist. Rather than let go, the monkey will allow itself to be captured.

Unhappiness can manifest itself in many different ways but, at its root, is always caused by the same things. Being aware of these things can enable us to develop a simple and effective approach to experiencing greater happiness.

The first cause – the need for control
It can be helpful to think of your life as a sailing ship, adrift in a great ocean, carried along by powerful winds and currents. Imagine a single person trying to control the ship by rowing. It would be a futile endeavor, and yet this is exactly what we often try to do. When the ship does not respond, we become frustrated and anxious. If we would only relax and enjoy the journey, who knows on what wonderful new shores we might land?

The second cause – the need for approval
We have been conditioned from a young age to seek the approval of others. We learned early on in life that survival depended on it.  As adults in a social setting, approval can still be useful, but when we can make our happiness contingent upon other people seeing us in a positive light, we are doomed to unhappiness. It is impossible to dance to someone else’s tune – the tune is always changing, for one thing – so we ought to stop trying.

The third cause – the need for security
Happiness is possible only when we discard our craving for certainty and our search for answers, and embrace what the philosopher Alan Watts called ‘the wisdom of insecurity.’ The truth is that we are, by nature, fragile and the world is always changing. Permanence is an illusion – trying to resist the impermanent nature of all things is futile and self-defeating.

The root cause – attachment
In the end, we are unhappy because we are attached to things. Sometimes it seems obvious what we’re attached to – possessions, people, money – but these are always just symptoms of deeper attachments to control, approval and security. Happiness is illusive because it can be so hard to let go of our attachments.

Happiness is not something to be found – it emerges from within when we let go of our attachments. Next time you feel unhappy, don’t try to analyze too much; just become aware of the quality of your feeling – watch it without comment or criticism and try to identify which of the needs is causing the unhappiness. It will be one of the needs listed above. Then ask yourself a simple question: Could I let go of this need? It doesn’t really matter what the answer is – just being aware of the feeling and its cause will lessen its power and your native, natural happiness can start to shine through.

Like the monkey who could be free just be letting go, we can experience happiness by giving up our attachments – an apparently simple thing to do, and yet so few people manage to do it.