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.
13 thoughts on “Why happiness is a lie”
This came at such the right time for me. It’s something I’d like to share with my hubby, but he’s too busy being an a$$ and putting me down for being depressed lately. It’s painful when the people who love you the most invalidate the most raw, biological processes (and for me that also includes PMDD). Thanks for your work. It means a great deal for those of us going it virtually alone.
Hey Dana — it’s so odd that we are taught that feeling down is unnatural, weak or wrong when we all deal with the same things. Step one is being authentic enough to acknowledge that we’re having a rough time.
I hope you have someone you can talk with … and come back for some unusual ideas to try that might help.
I think I was raised, or maybe it came naturally in my spirit, to be on the feminist side of things. In the past 4 years because of life, politics, job experiences, religion, etc., I’ve learned that it really is a man’s world. Men view being down as a weakness, society is largely controlled by male dominance. It’s all part of something bigger and more powerful than I am. I was raised by a father who demanded that I shut up, not share an opinion, and absolutley do not shed a tear. I never could master it, and I see it perpetuated all around me in social expectations. Even as an adult, I don’t do well trying to fake it, so when it proverbially rains, it pours. I have plenty of people to talk to, but no one who I think wants to or cares to hear it, and definitely no one who has anything meaningful to add. Each time this happens, I find my Amazon, and try to emerge more powerful than before–sometimes to my detriment as I have been told that everything about me is “too big”. And I do check frequently on your blog. You amaze me–you are some wonderful force of nature beating down the path for the rest of us who need to follow. I want to leave this life with a legacy, and I can’t do it on baking cakes, unicorn fairy dust glitter, and pretty pink lip gloss alone.
You story is not unlike mine Dana and I know how you feel.
What is it that makes you come alive? Is there something or someone that makes you forget yourself and get lost in the moment? If you can make room for your thoughts and feelings then you can pursue you dreams and find meaning in your life no matter what men/society/people think. ‘Making room’ is what I know how to do and will share with you soon.
I’m sending love and light to you and hope we continue to connect here. x
I just imagine being alone. No husband, no kids, no responsibilities, and imagine what I would do then. I take that feeling and try to find something to get lost in. Creating, friendships, metaphysical stuff, whatever we have time and money for me to pursue. Hubby is gone a lot, so I’m a single parent most of the time, and that hampers me. My kids don’t inspire me, and honestly, life without them seems preferable. I love them, but it’s hard and deeply unsettling knowing that you are raising and creating the path for another human in this world where there is no consistency. I explore the world around me, teach myself new things, and really just try to get lost in the unknown. I crave the freedom to roam, and while I don’t have that luxury, I try to find it in ways that are manageable without neglecting my responsibilities. Right now I’m just having a hard time figuring out what to gravitate towards. I will find it, it’s just taking some time. Then it will all be okay…for a while at least. 🙂
I don’t know why but reading/writing just popped into my head. Have you thought about writing a book? or a blog? A way to roam the world without leaving where you are perhaps?
I have, over and over, even been asked to. But I can’t be authentic without sifting dirt through my hands, touching dinnerware from a guests home in a far away country, drinking the homemade wine that just might make me violently ill, and managing to get lost in a place where I don’t speak the language. I need to feel slightly on the side of danger–I need uncertainty and risk to feel alive. I respect my relationship with my family, and hold off on these things, but one day I will be free and there will be no stopping me. I’m a Sagittarius, and it’s me, through and through. I’m waiting for the day to open up where I have the opportunity to roam. I want to see, feel, taste, touch, and live the experiences, hold hands with a woman while I stroll St. Petersburg, kiss a man who I’ve only just met, make love on the streets during Mardi Gras, freedom from responsibility, taking risks. Nothing else will do. But it is in me, and one day I’ll do it, even if I’m 88 years old. It’s who I am. 🙂 It’s what I desire and what I love. It’s a beautiful place to be. And deep inside of me, I’m on fire and not afraid to dive headfirst for what I want. Just waiting to be free. These things give me hope that one day I can be myself, live the life I want, and live to tell the story.
Wow — amazing stuff — why don’t you write a post for me … just like this … about the yearning, the longing, the dreams, the fire that never lets you rest. Please write for me and email it to me ~ firstname.lastname@example.org ~ I’d love to share your brilliant gift with my readers.
I used to be a fireworks girl. I was someone who sought massive highs and experienced deep lows until I figured out that contentment might be something more balanced to strive for. I have had glimpses of the nature of absolute reality and it gives me something other than happiness. It is an understanding of the illusory and impermanent nature of life. Seeking happiness is a form of emotional grasping which will not create happiness!
I’m not quite ready to give up the fireworks myself yet but I agree about the impermanence of both highs and lows. Being open to whatever experiences you encounter with curiosity and gratitude is what makes life have meaning. Thanks for your comment Loran x
I am loving the alternative definitions of Happiness! They resonate much more with me than simply “feeling good.” That wasn’t what happiness was to me anyway. Some would go on to differentiate happiness and joy but in my mind, they are more similar than what we give those words credit for 🙂
Now going to check out the negative thoughts post!
Thanks Kesha – seeing happiness as profound joy is a great way to look at it.
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