Happiness: Do we have it wrong?

Happiness is a very loaded term. The world teaches us that the pursuit of the feeling of happiness is the path to a meaningful and fulfilling life. But what if this belief is, in itself, contributing to our suffering? We all want to experience happiness, but is our tendency to cling to false positivity contributing to anxiety, depression, and overall suffering?

The business of happiness, I believe, has begun to resemble the beauty industry – we are being sold the unachievable idea of absolute, persistent happiness. And when we don’t achieve it, we look for the next big thing that will help us to get there. On the surface, this seems reasonable. Why would we choose to feel something uncomfortable? But, beneath the surface, the false positivity approach can actually lead to more suffering. To understand why, let’s take a look at 4 happiness myths discussed by Dr. Russ Harris in his book, The Happiness Trap:

Happiness is the natural state for humans

We did not evolve to feel happy all the time. We evolved to respond to our environment, which requires a variety of emotions. If we were happy all the time, how would we know if something was dangerous? Or a bad choice? Or an amazing opportunity? Our emotions can give us helpful information, if we can learn to accept and understand them. All of our emotions. Not just the happy, comfortable ones. Life requires emotional flexibility, not rigid adherence to one emotional state. The more we cling to happiness and false positivity, the less happy we become.

If you’re not happy, there’s something wrong with you

I hear this one from clients all the time. The western world assumes that all mental suffering is abnormal. As a result, many people begin to believe there is something wrong with them because of the uncomfortable emotions they feel. To be clear, this doesn’t mean that clinical levels of anxiety and depression don’t exist. They do and they should be addressed appropriately. However, we have begun to perceive even normative levels of anxiety, sadness, frustration, anger, disappointment, and heartache as pathological. The age of social media has compounded this issue. It can be difficult to remember that most people represent only a small portion of their lives (the most socially acceptable parts) in their social media accounts. When we compare our lives to these incomplete representations of life, we are often left with the erroneous belief that everyone is happier/more successful/more social connected/more attractive than me. Particularly for young people who have only ever known life with social media, this can be a powerful force that contributes to suffering.

To create a better life, we must get rid of uncomfortable feelings

Most of us can identify that the things we have done that have meant the most to us have caused us some discomfort and struggle. Ask any parent. It’s not a coincidence that the things that give us the highest highs often also give us the lowest lows. An unwillingness to experience uncomfortable emotions will inevitably keep your world small and restricted. The things that give our lives meaning typically come with the risk of failure, disappointment, stress, pain, and loss. However, this doesn’t mean that we need to feel miserable all the time to have a meaningful life. Our emotions don’t own us. We can feel sad without being a sad person. We are not our emotions. I believe I have a very positive outlook on life, but that doesn’t mean that I feel happy every minute of every day. To build a life well lived, we need to learn to sit with all of our emotions, understand them, and use them as a source of information to make our lives even more meaningful and fulfilling.

We should be able to completely control what we think and feel

This is compelling but untrue. Have you ever had someone tell you not to be sad when you were feeling sad? Did it make your sadness go away? I suspect not. It is natural to want to push away discomfort, particularly in a society that tells you it’s wrong. I believe we do a particular disservice to men with this myth, teaching them that they should be stoic and unemotional. However, while we have some ability to shift our thoughts and emotions, we cannot erase them completely, much as we may try. And the belief that we should be able to erase them can lead to anxiety or misguided control strategies when our attempts at emotional control don’t work. Many people avoid social situations, avoid putting themselves out there, or become addicted to substances, gambling or sex as a means of avoiding uncomfortable emotions. There is a saying: what we resist persists. Resisting an emotion will not make it go away and might actually amplify it. The emotional centre in your brain is very persistent and it won’t shut up until you listen. The good news is that we have significant control over our behaviour. This means we can choose how we respond to our emotions. We can be angry without acting aggressively; we can be anxious with engaging in avoidance behaviour; and we can be sad without isolating ourselves. We just need to build the skills to acknowledge, understand, and not be controlled by our emotions.

Seeking happiness is a good strategy, but equally important is to avoid the trap of false positivity and allow yourself to respond to your environment by experiencing the full range of emotions: the good, the bad, and the ugly. So, practice gratitude, make lemonade out of lemons, find the good in people. But, also make room for the inevitable discomfort that comes from a life well-lived. I believe this is a much more helpful definition of happiness.

Nicole Caines