This weekend I went to a therapy training workshop. The single most important thing I learnt is that happiness is a lie. Making happiness the goal of our lives is what will make us fundamentally unhappy. Sounds crazy that a doctor/psychotherapist would say this during a course designed for mental health professionals — maybe I should have asked for my money back?
As in all great controversial statements like ‘happiness is a lie’ we need to define our terms.
What is happiness?
Enjoying, showing, or marked by pleasure, satisfaction, or joy
~ the free dictionary
Happiness, in western cultures at least, is defined as feeling good. We all long for positive thoughts and positive emotions to be the dominant feature of our days.
Here’s a tip — it’s never going to happen.
Part of the human condition
We are pre-programmed to think negative thoughts and to feel uncomfortable emotions. We are descended from the most pessimistic of our ancestors. The ones that looked for a tiger behind every tree, the ones that were afraid of being eaten and the ones that did what they needed to do to be accepted by the tribe are the ones that survived. The song of our evolutionary past is ‘don’t get killed’. And not being killed meant being obsessed with danger and rejection in every moment.
We no longer live in a world fraught with the danger of death at any time, but our minds and emotions haven’t caught up yet. The fear we feel when we set out to do something we’ve never done before and the thoughts in our head that tell us we’re not good enough are part of the human condition. In some situations it saves our lives. In others, it makes us feel we’re abnormal, broken, sick, wrong and dysfunctional because no matter how many books we read, courses we take and affirmations we say, we can’t undo our programming.
We’re all the same
I sat in a room with 100 psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and counsellors. We were asked to raise our hands if we’d had struggled with the thought ‘I’m not good enough’ that day. Every hand in the room went up.
If the people in that room who have dedicated their whole lives to mental health haven’t found the secret to ‘feeling good’ all the time, what hope is there for the rest of us?
A new definition of happiness
I love to learn about human behaviour and this course brought happiness into my life. The experience wasn’t without pain however. I had to get up earlier than I normally do, take a train to the city, walk into a room of people who were more experienced than I, participate in exercises that brought up unpleasant emotions, expose my vulnerability and interact socially with strangers. On many levels it was none of the things I would choose to do if I was searching simply for pleasure. But my experience brought me a new kind of happiness – happiness that comes from living a rich, full and meaningful life.
Happiness is that state of consciousness which proceeds from the achievement of one’s values.
~ Ayn Rand
Happiness is the emotional reaction to the performing of actions that brings you closer to what or where you want to be.
~ Commander Johnson
A shift in perspective
Think of all the time and energy you invest in trying to get rid of or ignore the unpleasant thoughts and feelings in your life. You either struggle with them or employ some diversionary tactic that gives you relief in the short-term but still the thoughts and feelings come back. And sometimes, you just give in.
Has that piece of cake ever stopped you thinking you were a loser for long? Has looking at yourself in the mirror and declaring you are beautiful every morning banished the ‘fat’ days? Has zoning out in front of the TV made the anxiety about your relationship disappear for long?
You can give in to the misery (no-one could love me so I’m not going to that party), struggle with it (of course I’m lovable you say as the voice says even louder ‘no you’re not’) or distract yourself from it (I’m not going to the party so I’m going to sit here and drink a bottle of wine instead).
But what if there was a different way? What if you stopped being controlled by or trying to control the pain in your life?
What if you could live a rich, full and meaningful life with pain as your companion?
Here’s how to do it … → read more
→ The leader of the seminar was Dr Russ Harris and his book The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living is well worth reading if you want to know more.