The pressure to always feel “happy” can be intense for people with depression and anxiety. But happiness is a journey, not a destination.
By Robin L. Flanigan
No one blurts out “I’m so discontented!” But think about how many times—whether referencing something important or superficial—we lament that we’re unhappy.
We don’t want to simply count our blessings and be satisfied. We want to find deep meaning and a fulfilling purpose in life.
We want to thrive.
“I’d say happiness is a disposition, contentment is a philosophical bearing,” offers New York Times journalist John Leland, author of the bestselling Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old. “We’re aware of our happiness or its absence. Contentment doesn’t require that we acknowledge it.”
That awareness comes with pressure—especially when we know that happiness is a predictor of health and longevity. And what makes things worse is that the image that gets attached to that pressure isn’t even feasible.
“The word ‘happiness’ is in vogue right now,” says Paul Krismer, founder of the Happiness Experts Company in British Columbia, which uses research from the field of positive psychology to help people and organizations create transformational change. “People are told they should have a big grin on their face, as if they’re skipping through a buttercup meadow on a sunny day, and that’s not realistic for most of us most of the time.”
Especially when depression and anxiety enter the picture. Then it’s easier to ignore the good and focus on the bad. Or not see the good at all. That can turn into a habit leading to cognitive distortions, which are thinking patterns that reinforce negative thoughts or emotions.
Nina A. says she is learning to move toward the “existential discomfort” that accompanies symptoms from her major depressive and generalized anxiety disorders—symptoms that get in the way of her definition of happiness, which is “the freedom to experience life the way I choose.”
“I’m working diligently on it,” says Nina, of upstate New York. “When I feel the discomfort, I lean into it, let it get bigger, and ask myself, ‘How old was I when I first felt this way?’ I’m usually very young. Then I let that part of me know that she’s going to be completely taken care of because I’m grown now and in charge.”
Growing up, Nina wasn’t given tools for dealing with negative emotions, so she developed a lot of social currency around being positive and present for others, though that often suppresses her own needs. Even though she would like to share more about being in a difficult place at times, she tends to try recovering on her own by listening to self-development audiobooks, for example, because she knows that her moods can be distressing for others to hear about.
“And then I end up maybe making it worse,” she says.
Nina recently took a workshop with sociologist and life coach Martha Beck, where she learned a strategy for cultivating happiness—by focusing more on the future than the past.
“It’s when you think about how you want to feel a couple months from now, or in year,” she explains. “You come up with some sort of goal you want to achieve, then go into a meditative state and allow yourself to experience that feeling. Mine is, ‘I’m full of delight and creative energy.’ The idea is that when you sit with happy emotions and let them change your mindset in the present moment, the more you live from this mindset and the more you attract experiences that will support it.”
We don’t ‘arrive’ at happy
While it’s good to have a vision for what the future could hold, try not to set that vision in stone, cautions Richard A. Enander, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Dallas.
We can be “pretty poor judges” of what’s going to make us happy years from now, he says. “By the time we acquire what we thought would make us happy, our wants and desires often have shifted. We’re better off trying to focus on what makes us as happy as can be in the here and now.”
Jeff W. of Toronto, a meditation teacher and co-author of Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-to Book, agrees that happiness is tied to being in the present moment—a skill that requires “learning how to be open and become more intimate with your own discomfort.”
For Jeff, regular meditation practice helps with his anxiety issues. But he also understands that the classic meditation advice—“Just sit”—is unrealistic for many, so he has developed a system for introducing the practice to hesitant newbies.
First try sitting down and concentrating on your breath; when your mind wanders, bring it back to the breath. If this doesn’t work because your thoughts are racing, “let yourself have that experience without feeding it, without whipping yourself into a frenzy,” he says. “It’s hard, and a subtle skill … but you wind up releasing anxiety over time.” Still not working? A body-oriented psychotherapy approach could help you move past trauma symptoms that may be trapping energy and hindering progress.
We can be “pretty poor judges” of what’s going to make us happy years from now
The objective is to stop chasing after happiness so that when it does come—between the sadness and frustration and other moments that are normal but less desirable—it is undeniably deeper.
“There’s something so heartbreakingly beautiful with the world and all its ups and downs,” Jeff says. “You don’t need to make it into a Disney movie.”
Krismer, author of Whole Person Happiness: How to Be Well in Body, Mind and Spirit, often references a list of 10 key positive emotions developed by Barbara Fredrickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The emotions are: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and love.
Being able to name these emotions helps us pause and reflect on the numerous positive things that happen on a typical day and usually go unappreciated.
Krismer is another expert who doesn’t view the concept of happiness as a destination, and he believes that asking a person whether they’re happy—even if they seem happy—can backfire.
“As soon as I asked that question, you’d pause and reflect on your life and say, ‘Well, my relationship with my spouse could be better, and I wish my kids would pick up their socks.’ The very question makes us unhappy,” he says. “The target instead should be creating a trajectory over the next weeks and months toward being happier. It’s never about, ‘I arrived at ‘happy’ today and now I’m parked.
“Besides,” he adds, “we’d be a totally messed-up species if were all happy all the time.”
It’s a marathon, not a sprint
Gratitude journals have been celebrated for years as a way to boost happiness.
But research has shown that using a gratitude journal daily or even a few times a week to generalize the good things in your life doesn’t work, because it becomes “stale and ends up desensitizing you to things you’re grateful for, and therefore becomes ineffective,” says Acacia Parks, PhD, chief scientist at Happify, a tech-based self-improvement program.
Instead, she advises, once a week is the “bare minimum spacing” you should have to capture on paper, before bed, three positive events that happened that day. Different things happen to us daily, so recognizing them can’t get stale the way being grateful for your house, or your family, could.
“It’s got to be done regularly, and it takes a few weeks before it kicks in,” notes Parks, who specializes in concrete behavior changes that have been scientifically proven to improve happiness. “But over time you become better at noticing the good things that happen to you.”
And that’s the point—becoming happier takes time and relies on incremental modifications.
“There’s actually no huge change I can think of that brings lasting happiness,” Parks says. “There’s not anything big you can do that’s as effective as small, regular behavior changes.”
Those changes can be monumentally simple, such as savoring anticipation, for instance.
There’s something so heartbreakingly beautiful with the world and all its ups and downs.
Sometimes an experience that conjures up special memories is all it takes to get in touch with a feeling of delight. Those are the times Ben C., a low-key physician from Minnesota, feels the most irrepressibly buoyant.
While on a European vacation with his wife and three children last summer, his oldest daughter was ecstatic to visit the Palace of Versailles in France.
“My response was, ‘Yeah, that’s really nice,’ and she was frustrated that I wasn’t more joyful about it,” he recalls.
But then the family toured the school in Oxford, England, where Ben had spent a semester in college. There were souvenir mugs for sale, graced with the image of a hand-drawn map by one of the school’s most well-known deans.
“I was giddy,” he says. “Afterward my daughter said, ‘Are you kidding me? You were more excited about that mug than Versailles.’ But it brought back so many memories.”
In his daily life, Ben makes an effort to connect in a meaningful way with his family, regardless of whether he’s tired after a long day at work and just wants to be left alone. That’s a good indicator of long-term happiness, according to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the world’s longest studies of adult life. Since the Great Depression, the study has been tracking issues of aging to learn more about what leads to health and happiness. The biggest factor? Close relationships. More than money, fame, social class, IQ, even genes, our relationships protect us the most from life’s grievances.
“Sometimes I act in a way I would act if I were happy, and even if it feels like a chore, in the end I usually wind up feeling happier,” Ben says.
Roadblocks to happiness
For those who wonder whether money can buy happiness, let’s look to Princeton University, where research has shown that there is a connection—to a point. And that point is $75,000 a year. The lower a person’s annual income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. That said, no matter how much more than $75,000 a person makes, there is no greater degree of happiness.
Even so, people often equate being able to buy something—easy enough to do with the click of a button—with a sense of security and gratification, both of which can lead to happiness. In this age of Amazon and Netflix, convenience may give us a small dopamine rush, but it does nothing to promote enduring feelings of joy.
“It’s this immediacy that we want,” observes Craig Chilcott, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Maryland. “But when everything has to be like that, that’s where a lot of suffering comes from. It’s from wanting to have things right now, instead of being comfortable with letting whatever’s there be there for right now.”
With clients who want to move in a healthy way toward experiences that feel important to them and, as a result, ultimately lead to a greater sense of happiness, Chilcott uses a set of cards that describe various values. Clients sort the cards into categories such as “Least Important” and “Most Important.” Chilcott had found them helpful in one of his own therapy sessions.
It’s never about, ‘I arrived at ‘happy’ today and now I’m parked
“It’s not about getting an answer right away,” he says. “It’s about orienting your life in a certain way, one that gives rise to the potential to have more of the experiences you want. Instead of shooting for the feeling, shoot for what would contribute to the feeling.”
Social media doesn’t help because we tend to compare ourselves—and our station in life—with highly curated (and subsequently skewed) versions of people we sometimes only peripherally know. And we spend a lot of time doing it.
That brings us back to Netflix. Conversations these days regularly turn to what shows we’re currently binge-watching.
“The whole ‘guilty pleasure’ narrative didn’t come up in my vernacular until about 10 years ago,” says Parks, adding that people increasingly are spending time doing things they wish they wouldn’t. “We talk about how what we’re doing is totally pointless, and we’re embarrassed by it, but we still do it. And that’s one of the key things interfering with our happiness.”
Maybe it’s because we’re human that we get in our own way—or let outside forces do the job for us.
Even Parks, who researches happiness for a living, can’t always sustain her ideal level of happiness. Conflicts disrupt her schedule; she falls behind on her exercise routine.
“Because I’m so aware of the impact of my own behavior on my happiness, I know that when I’m feeling bad, it’s usually my fault,” she says. “You just have to backstep and start over.”
Read More: 4 Simple Ways To Help You Find Your ‘Happy’
Printed as “The Pursuit of Happiness”, Summer 2018
via Esperanza – Hope To Cope
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