Attachment to Outcomes

Attachment is the cause of all unhappiness and anxiety. We have an emotional attachment to outcomes which causes us to feel bad when a desired result doesn’t manifest itself. We stress about how things will go. We get annoyed and sad when things don’t go our way. If you can completely devoid yourself of attachment to outcomes, then you wouldn’t feel any negative emotion.

Of course, completely disassociating oneself from all outcomes is virtually impossible; the idea is to reduce our current level of attachment to outcomes.

You may think that if you have no attachment to outcomes, then you can’t experience positive emotion for when a positive outcome occurs, but it isn’t the case. The problem is where you attach yourself to one particular outcome and base your happiness, self-esteem, and self-worth on it. Not attaching yourself to an outcome is where you can accept any possible outcome, even if it isn’t the one you desired.

Here’s an example. Consider someone wanting a job at a firm. They apply and get invited to an interview for a position they want. This person probably has an attachment to the outcome of her application for the position; they’ve put effort into it and don’t want it to fail. It could be a great job with higher pay, leading to a brilliant possible future. This is totally natural for everyone to experience. Of course, they want to be accepted, as it will give them a job they want. Rejection means sticking with the old job or no job; that outcome is seen as terrible.

So why is having an attachment to a given outcome bad? When they place additional pressure and stress on getting this one application to go well, their interview is harder because of the burden of the possibility of failure; reducing the likelihood of getting hired. If they do get rejected, then they’ll feel terrible, now that they have to stick with what they had before. They lose self-esteem. Time and effort had been invested, which have now been lost. Life doesn’t seem as enjoyable as it was previously.

If less or no attachment was placed on the outcome of getting hired, then less stress and anxiety would have been caused. There would have been a higher likelihood of success, without the burden of feeling possible failure badly. Other positions at other firms would have been considered more if they weren’t attached to the result of that one application. The time and effort invested weren’t lost, it is seen as another experience, a learning experience, it being just another thing to appreciate in life. And if they do get hired, it can be appreciated more. Positive emotion can still be experienced if it goes well, without the attachment to the outcome.

This may seem like a principle that looks like a nice idea, but impossible to put into practice. We’re taught from birth to give different levels of attachment to different things. Such as seeing the death of a loved one as a tragedy, and the death of a stranger as news. Or viewing the killing of a dog as cruel, and the murder of a cow as food. So, what if we tried to detach ourselves less from each outcome, we could still experience positive emotion when things go well while suffering less when things don’t go our way.

Why we shouldn’t be attached to outcomes

Outcomes are usually outside of our control. We can’t decide how things go; we aren’t gods of omnipotent power. The outcomes that occur are a consequence of the world that we live in, which nobody can understand completely. Like death, many things are inevitable. Basing attachment to specific outcomes seems foolish if you look at it from above. Why should we be so sad when things don’t go the way we want them too. It’s just part of our biological programming, and we should try to override it.

You may think that not being attached to the possibility of the death of your spouse is a horrible attitude to have. Yes, some outcomes have a strong attachment for a reason, because you really don’t want them to occur. But labelling something as a tragedy just because it is normal isn’t always the best way to go. You can interpret it as a growth experience, or as an opportunity to appreciate the role that that person had in your life. It’s all about frame of mind.

There are often other outcomes that we haven’t considered that could be great as well, if not better than what we originally had in mind. If we attach ourselves to the goal of losing 5kg in three months and take action to move towards that goal. If we fail to achieve the goal, we still gain benefits from attempting to do it, such as losing only 2kg and possibly adjusting to better lifestyle habits. It could be as simple as knowing yourself better, so you know what to improve on next time you set a goal to lose weight, or you could make connections with other people also trying to lose weight. Seeing achieving the target as the only success, seeing failure as being without any benefit, or seeing the journey as only a means of achieving an end are all based on attachment to the outcome.

If we focus on the outcome so much, then we fail to enjoy the journey. If you talk to someone with the only intention being to get into a romantic relationship with them, then you can easily miss out on enjoying the process and the experience of it. It’s also much more likely that you’ll fail in your objective because you aren’t entirely immersed in the moment, you’re acting to try and cause a particular outcome to manifest. It may not even be the outcome that you really want. You won’t notice any red flags as easily, and you may come across as needy. If it doesn’t go as planned, you might see the experience as being a waste of time; rather than an appreciable exchange with someone, and a learning experience. The failure puts a dent in your self-esteem, and you think you aren’t living up to your own expectations.

Letting Go

Letting go of attachment to outcomes is frees us from stress and possible upset. We can focus on the present more while ruminating over the future less. So what can we focus on instead of concentrating on the outcome?

The process is one thing we could focus on. If we enjoyed the process of going to the gym, we wouldn’t be too sad if we failed in our goal to get to a certain level of body fat. I explored this in my previous article on Enjoying the Process.

The intent. If I intend to exercise more often, then that seems like a good thought to have. If my intention is to bring happiness to my readers, then I can still appreciate the fact that I’m trying to help — even if only a few people read my blog. You may try and fake intentions, where you think you want to exercise more but never get around to it because you haven’t fully aligned yourself with that intention. Having a real intention is where you actually try to make a difference, even if your desired outcome doesn’t occur.

The effort. If you attempt something but fail, you can still appreciate how you tried. Many people never try to reach for the things they want, they see the effort as an entry-level barrier to starting. If you at least started, you probably made more effort than many others who wanted the same outcome as you did, in whatever situation that could be.

The benefits of other possible outcomes. Perhaps starting a new business could create stronger bonds with the friends you work with or builds up your confidence to begin even bigger ventures. If something seems like a complete failure, a complete waste of time, a complete waste of energy, a complete waste of money, you’re not looking at it clearly. You may be totally immersed in the negative emotion of the moment, blinding you to the benefits you can’t see, if only you tried to look. You can learn from almost any experience, and if you can’t, you can seek what you can change about your situation so you could learn more from future failures. If there is absolutely nothing to learn, you can still appreciate it as being part of the passing of time, an event in peoples lives, as something with meaning, and as a story to tell others in the future — so others can learn from it.

So, what would you do if you weren’t attached to the outcome of an action? You might tell the truth to someone, break up with a long-time partner, ask a person out on a date, etc. Of course, you shouldn’t take actions that you don’t want to take — that’s not the idea. It’s if you’re too scared of the negative consequences of a potentially beneficial action going wrong; causing inaction, stress, and suffering. If you want to improve your ability to detach yourself from outcomes, then you can practice applying this principle, or try meditating on it. Take time to recognise which outcomes or circumstances that you’re emotionally attached to, and make sure that if they don’t turn out as planned, you can still move on quickly without too much pain and grief.