Originally this article was entitled “Being Happy.” But “Being” seems more appropriate. We are caught in an endless strive to be happy. We want to increase our pleasure and decrease our negative emotions. This article will discuss ways to accomplish this, while at the same time not neglecting the emotions we are less comfortable with.
There are many articles describing what it takes to be happy. Recently there was a simple article on MSN’s website about “9 Things You Can Do To Be Happy In the Next 30 Minutes.” And there is good advice there: exercise, accomplish a nagging task; learn something new, act happy to be happy, or reach out to someone you haven’t been in contact with in a while, among others. Some time ago I wrote an article about how letting go can contribute to happiness. This relates and adds to other articles that have been written about what brings happiness.
One article narrows happiness down to four ingredients: enough money to survive (necessities are met), supportive relationships (not necessarily romantic), faith (in yourself, or that things will work out is sufficient, it doesn’t have to be religious), and as Csikszentmihalyi theorized, an activity that you lose yourself in experiencing what he described as “flow.” Despite these concepts being relatively simple, Csikszentmihalyi’s research suggests they hold true.
Another simple suggestion in a recent Time Magazine article focuses on having happy people around you. A study found that those who had smiling pictures on a social networking site also had more friends. This is beyond the already accepted phenomenon of “emotional Contagion.” Yet despite all of the many books, articles, or simple suggestions by those who care, we continue to search for a way to be happy. It is not that these suggestions aren’t helpful. But something stands in the way of our remaining happy.
First, the above statement requires clarification. No one can be happy all of the time. In fact, as Eastern philosophy suggests, we wouldn’t know happiness if we didn’t also know sadness. There are no mountains without valleys. But, as stated earlier, we are a species who strive to increase our pleasure and decrease our discomfort. So how can we be happier more of the time? What stands in our way?
Speaking as a therapist, one goal that every client implicitly has is to be happier. Whether someone enters treatment for depression (where feeling better is obviously the goal) or for couple’s therapy (where the goal is generally assumed to be happier as a couple) or for anxiety (where the goal is to be less inhibited by excessive worry, thereby suggesting being happier) or substance abuse (where consequences of using substances have led to more difficulties than the substance can provide relief from) the goal seems to be the same: achieving more happiness. Yet again it is often true that despite rather simple formulas to increase happiness people remain unhappy. Millions of books are sold that suggest some often very helpful formula to happiness. Some well known books that come to mind include “Life’s Little Instruction Book,” “All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten,” “Who Moved My Cheese,” “The Secret,” “The Power of Now,” “The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living,” and not to mention many of the books by Deepak Chopra. And there are thousands more. Yet despite all of these books, people continue to search for a way to increase their happiness, providing yet another person with a best seller. And this is not necessarily bad, as humans we often require reminders of how to maintain positive feelings in our lives.
This brings us to the discussion of what stands in the way of our happiness. First, as many others have written, our belief that we can be completely happy and negate all negative feelings is erroneous. You might be thinking right now, “of course we can’t eradicate all negative feelings, that’s common sense.” And you would be correct. However, despite knowing this intellectually, people behave as if eliminating negative emotion is the goal. This has to be clear: despite knowledge life has to have some less than positive emotions, people behave as if the goal is to eliminate them. The same is true of death. Often in Existential Therapy the client will acknowledge that death is inevitable, all the while behaving as if they will live forever by not embracing life in the present.
Recently there has been a movement in psychology toward incorporating Eastern thought into psychotherapy. Dr. Linehan’s DBT therapy is one excellent example which has shown effectiveness with a client population which in the past had little success in treatment. Other recent examples include the treatment for depression as described by J. Mark Williams, John Teasdale and mindfulness meditation author Jon Kabat-Zinn in “The Mindful Way Through Depression.” These treatments utilize the idea of allowing yourself to experience the feelings, rather than trying to immediately change them or escape from them. In short, being with the feeling, allowing them to be experienced and then pass, as all things do.
The final point to be made about obstacles to happiness builds on a theory of creative visualization. Books like “The Secret” suggest that if you believe you can achieve something, you can materialize it in your reality. This is a rather old notion (discussed in several books before “The Secret”) that many attest to be true. One problem with the theory however, is less obvious beliefs that the person may hold may be interfering.
In therapy beliefs are discussed and explored. Recently in working with clients suffering from depression, the clients’ beliefs about what happy people looked like were explored. These individuals who are striving to be happy, described a negative view of a happy person. They perceived a happy person as rather oblivious to the negatives in the world, as if they were closing their eyes to important aspects of life. They saw happy people as ignoring their own problems, or the potential for problems. They viewed them as rather giddy and silly. It would then stand to reason that if you view happy people in a negative light, you will have difficulty accomplishing happiness. You have a deep seeded belief that happiness is worse than being down. Despite the seemingly simple logic and common sense nature of what is described above, many who are chronically unhappy hold similar beliefs. They believe there is some reward for being unhappy, whether it is a more realistic view of the world, preventing further hurt, or some other unacknowledged reward. There is always a reward. The trick is discovering it, bringing it into the light for examination, and challenging its usefulness. Finally, some of the rewards of being happy (besides the evident happiness, such as its relation to health) can be weighed against the perceived rewards of not being happy.
In conclusion, there are many valuable suggestions to bring more happiness into your life. Some of the basics are exercise, socializing, being with those you love, having faith that things will be okay, and engaging in an activity you lose yourself and the sense of time to. Additionally, allowing yourself to experience the perceived negative emotions that are intrinsically tied with life is also important. This also relates to accepting that this is normal, that everyone experiences pain, and that it doesn’t have to be avoided. Finally, exploring some of your underlying beliefs about what it might mean to be a happy person, particularly focusing on the rewards of not being happy may help you discover some of the obstacles to achieving personal happiness.