By: Irina Vanzhula, M.S.
Would you like to be happy? Of course! Why wouldn’t you? Most people believe that they must get rid of all negativity to create a better life. Abundant self-help books and websites teach us how to get rid of all negative thoughts and feelings and accumulate positive ones. With a brief internet search, you can find long lists of ideas on how to be happy. If they worked, we would all be very happy, all the time. However, 20% of adults in the US experience depression and 31% suffer from anxiety disorder in their lifetime (NAMI, 2018). Maybe long-term happiness is not possible and the struggle to obtain it contributes to our unhappiness.
The most common definition of happiness is feeling good. This feeling is usually fleeting, and we put forth a lot of effort to try to hold on it. We chase things that we believe would make us happy, such as more money, a different job, a new relationship, having that “ideal” body, or not having to deal with some problem, such as a physical or mental illness. We spend a lot of time, energy, and money in the search for happiness, such as working more hours to get a new job and make more money, spending time on dating apps, dieting and spending hours at the gym, and looking for ways to control how we feel. We try to avoid unhappiness if at all possible.
Unfortunately, all these strategies only work in the short-term (if they are effective at all) and we find ourselves searching for happiness yet again. This happiness chase is largely unsatisfying and can even lead to development or worsening of depression and anxiety. When we are unhappy, we often believe that something is wrong with our environment or even ourselves. Have you ever thought, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be happy like everyone else?” or “Something is wrong with me because I am so unhappy”? We often believe that if we can’t achieve happiness, we have failed.
Where did we get this idea that we should always be happy? The United States was built on the promise of the “pursuit of happiness” and it is one of the most important goals in Western culture. Our society assumes that happiness is a natural state and that mental suffering is abnormal. Suffering is often seen as a weakness or a character flaw. Instead, suffering is a normal part of life. Negative thoughts and feelings are not your enemy, and most things we value come with a full range of emotions. Having more money or a new job comes with exciting opportunities and new difficulties. A relationship brings love and joy, but also disappointment and frustration.
Psychological pain and suffering are part of being human. Our brains developed to survive, which involves worrying about dangers, to evaluate our surroundings, and be dissatisfied with what we have. We would not have built fancy sky-scrapers if humans several hundred years ago were satisfied about their wooden hut. So many songs, paintings, and other works of art would have never been created if humans were always happy. Enduring difficult emotions is a valuable experience that makes us better individuals. Aristotle used the term catharsis to define emotional healing that comes through experience of one’s emotions.
The goal here is not to say that you should feel sad all the time. However, instead of chasing feelings of happiness, I encourage you to pursue things that matter to you, with all the array of emotions that may come with them. Instead of a happy life, create a meaningful life worth living. If you think that you have to feel better and get rid of pain and suffering before you can do that, this is not true. You can be experiencing difficult emotions AND pursue your goals at the same time; it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Here is how to get started.
1. Accept that you cannot control your thoughts and emotions. Let’s do a brief exercise. Spend a few seconds trying not to think about a beach. Don’t think about the waves or how sand feels under your feet. Don’t think about how the breeze feels on your face. How did it go? Were you thinking about the beach the entire time? Now bring to mind your earliest childhood memory and get a picture in your head. Now try to erase the memory so it can never come back to you again. Were you successful? Can you still remember it? Finally, think of the last time you were sad and someone told you not to be. Did that work? Research actually tells us that trying to control negative thoughts and emotions contributes to more suffering (Wheaton et al., 2017; Beesedo-Baum et al., 2012). Instead, allow them to just be there and you will notice that they will soon pass.
2. Practice acceptance. Acceptance does not mean giving up or resigning to your fate. Rather, it means to see things the way they are instead of wishing they were different. If you are struggling with an illness, accept your reality as it is. You don’t have to like the situation or agree with it to accept it. Try writing about your situation, how it came to be and how it affects you. Don’t avoid discussing difficult thoughts and emotions. Instead of saying “I wish this didn’t happen to me and I wasn’t in so much pain” try “This happened to me and I am in pain now. I don’t like how I feel, and I can still move forward.”
3. Figure out what is actually important to you. A new job may not bring you satisfaction if work and career is not something you value. When thinking about your values, consider which ones are truly yours and which ones are placed on us by society. For example, it may be believed that women should value having family and children. Being skinny or fit is also highly promoted in our society. If you are pursuing one of these or other values, consider where they came from. Also, watch out for self-judgments in case you don’t value something that others expect you to. Be true to yourself. The following links can help you identify your true values. After you have done so, think of several small steps you can take towards those values.
Here are some links with more information on how to practice accepting emotions:
Harris, R. (2008). The Happiness Trap. Trumpeter Books: Boulder, CO.
National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/index.shtml
Beesdo-Baum, K., Jenjahn, E., Höfler, M., Lueken, U., Becker, E. S., & Hoyer, J. (2012). Avoidance, safety behavior, and reassurance seeking in generalized anxiety disorder. Depression and Anxiety, 29(11), 948–957.