We are supposed to be happy … right? I mean if we are not happy, we are clearly failing in some obvious way. Aren’t we? Could the pressure to be ‘happy’ be making us … unhappy?
Russ Harris started out working life as a Medical Doctor, a GP. After a couple of years he noticed he was putting on weight. He correctly identified this was likely to have something to do with the two crates of Tim Tams he was downing after work each day. Russ after several attempts to lose the weight and avoid the Tim Tams finally embraced the challenge of Self Reflection. Long story short he traded in his stethoscope for ‘the couch’ and became a Psychotherapist.
Russ has written a book about the journey towards acceptance of the Self and the Other called, “The Happiness Trap” that challenges many beliefs and assumptions we all carry around about ‘happiness’. Here are four Myths about happiness that Russ tackles.
“Happiness is the Natural State for all Human Beings”
It is a common cultural assumptions that we human beings are naturally happy. What do the numbers say?
One in ten of us will attempt suicide in our lives and one in five of us will suffer from Depression at least once in our lives. We have a 30% chance of suffering from a serious psychiatric disorder at some stage in our lives.
What about sources of unhappiness that are less easy to classify? Things like … loneliness, divorce, sexual difficulties, work stress, midlife crisis, relationship challenges, domestic conflict and violence, social isolation, bullying, prejudice, low self-esteem, chronic anger, chronic illness, existential angst otherwise known as emptiness or feelings of despair and or apathy. Try talking about any of these topics with a friend or acquaintance and watch their reaction. Most of us recoil in horror as if just contemplating these challenges creates some kind of infection risk.
“If you are not happy, you are Defective”
The next myth kind of sprouts from the first myth. The Western Mind embraces happiness in manner of a smile fixed to the face via electrocution. Mental suffering is viewed as abnormal or strange, but is it? Suffering is seen as a weakness, an illness, a symptom of a mind that is at fault, in error, defective, in need of medicating or treatment, so it can be fixed.
This belief or view of mental suffering means that when we find ourselves experiencing internal pain in the form of thoughts or feelings, we are likely to activate that ‘Inner Critic’ and begin criticizing ourselves with tenacious brutality. Health professionals don’t really help this tendency to criticize because the practice of our particular brand of health care often encourages or even requires us to label people and experiences with phrases such as, “You are Depressed”. This practice serves to confirm our defective status rather than liberate or offer us a path of empowerment.
“To Create A Better Life we must Get Rid of Negative Feelings”
The world around us, society, the media, our friends are largely obsessed with locating happiness and getting it by the boat load. We live in a ‘feel-good’ society. No one has time to listen to any sad sacks who are not focusing their mind on good stuff … only. Have you noticed how quickly the crickets start tuning up when you take the risk and depart from the happiness script, when you try a bit of authentic communication?
No one wants to experience unhappiness, uncomfortable-ness or negative feelings. I mean who does? But at the same time, who can avoid them? Most experiences that we value in life are a combination of diverse qualities of emotion. Intimate long term relationships can and do offer feelings such as love, joy, being known, being seen but they also come with disappointment, frustration and irritation, sometimes betrayal. This is also true for meaningful projects. They can bring excitement, enthusiasm even achievement and satisfaction. But they also bring stress, fear, anxiety maybe some anger. Negative feelings exist along side positive feelings. This is just how life is experienced.
“You Should be Able to Control What you Think & Feel”
I love a dose of Anthony Robbins as much as the next … I was going to say ‘believer in Fairy Tales’, but what I really mean is ‘seeker of happiness’. The Self Help movement, whilst a source of encouragement and stimulating thoughts of hope and maybe even plans to reach potentials as yet unrealized, also perpetuates this myth. I have lost count of how many self help workshops, books and articles I have cast my eyes over that endorse the idea that achieving happiness and success is as simple as identifying negative thoughts and replacing them with positive ones. Using repetition constantly and obsessively if necessary.
The truth – we have much less control over our thoughts and feelings that we would ideally like. Try as we might we cannot change the way we feel. We can however, control our actions – what we do. Unless you are brand new to the Self Help universe, you will have heard phrases like, “Everything that happens is for my highest good and greatest joy!”, possibly you have tried it for yourself. The idea is to challenge your negative thinking by repeating the positive alternative. However what this practice can do, is leave you feeling even more defeated.
Control is an Illusion
The human mind is pretty cluey. And it likes control. It seeks control. A person who perceives themselves to be more in control of their life than others, feels less anxiety and is more likely to be ‘happy’. Our minds are all about solving problems. This is what the frontal cortex is designed to do. Our mind has enabled us to shape the world around us which in turn has allowed us to create amazing technology that gives us even more ways to control our environment. Aren’t we clever? So why can’t we control … happiness?
The material world, the environment, the outside world is very amendable to interacting with in such a way that we control outcomes by effecting change ‘on’ something. But this is not the way the internal world works. The internal world is made up of thoughts, images, memories, emotions, urges, desires, physical sensations. Can we just … remove the ones we don’t like?
Friends there is a lot more to say on the nature of the ‘mind’ but the long and the short of it is … the mind, our mind, our internal world is not something we can overtly control. It is something we can meet, make friends with, go more deeply into, maybe even understand but it is not something we can control.
People try. This is what an addiction is. The substance you are taking gives a very brief biochemical means of controlling aspects of your mind – but the effects are short term and comes with many undesirable ‘strings’.