Clients often find themselves sitting on my couch telling me that they just want to be happier. They are struggling with feelings of overwhelm, sadness, helplessness, stress, panic, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, anger, or frustration. They don’t want to feel those things. They want to feel happy. Our ideas about happiness, however, are sometimes part of the problem.
Here are three common happiness myths that might be bringing you down.
1) Happiness should be our natural state.
“The only thing that is constant is change.” Have you heard that line before? It was written by Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher who lived from 535-475 BC. He understood then something that not all of us understand now: life is always changing. The seasons change, our ages change, our circumstances change, and most relevant here, our emotions change.
As human beings, we are able to experience a huge range of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Why in the world would we think that we’re supposed to maintain only one emotional state? We even expect to feel certain things at different times – fear when we’re in a dangerous situation, anxiety when we have a speech to make, sadness when someone we love passes away, anger when we feel we’ve been wronged. Our emotions are always changing, though not always in ways we appreciate or control. To believe that happiness is the natural state of healthy, successful, well-adjusted human beings is to ignore the rich complexity of our species.
2) If you’re happy, you’ll feel good.
If being happy means that you simply “feel good,” then we will never be able to have lasting happiness. It’s just not possible. Think of a time where you were genuinely happy…. Now, how long did that feeling last? We cannot maintain it. We find ourselves in stressful, scary, or frustrating situations. Sometimes we literally “feel bad” because we’re sick with a cold or the flu.
What if I offered you a new definition of what it means to be happy? What if “being happy” doesn’t mean feeling good all the time, but living a rich and meaningful life? What if “being happy” means living a life of intention and direction, while allowing ourselves to move through all the difficult emotions we’ll undoubtedly experience?
Those things that make our lives meaningful don’t only involve good feelings. In some of your best relationships, you’ll feel angry, annoyed, sad, and fearful. If you’re a parent, you might agree that your children give you meaning and fulfillment, but would you agree that they make you feel GOOD every day? Leading a happy life involves leading a full life – if you’re missing out on some of the difficult emotions, you’re missing out on important experiences that add value.
3) If you’re not happy, something is wrong with you.
One of the reasons I don’t take insurance is because so much of normal human experience is being pathologized. In other words, normal emotional responses are being treated as a problem to be fixed. The reality is, if you’re finding yourself experiencing a difficult emotion, you are a normal, typical human being. Life can be challenging, and we can and should expect to experience difficult – even painful – thoughts and emotions. Would anyone dare to suggest that life is easy all of the time?
The problem is not that we experience difficult emotions, but that we sometimes feel overcome by them. Sometimes we are unable to keep moving towards the person we want to be, and the life we want to live, because we get hooked by painful thoughts and emotions. If you’re not happy, it doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you. It just means you’ve gotten sidetracked.
If you aren’t happy, the good news is that you’re normal! If you aren’t sure what direction to move in next, or how to distance yourself from these happiness myths, talking to a mental health professional can be a great step.
My job with my clients is not to make all their negative or painful thoughts and feelings to disappear forever. My job is to help them create a rich and meaningful life despite the inevitable fear, sadness, jealously, resentment, unhappiness, anxiety, or stress they’ll experience at different times in their lives.
“Stop trying to control how you feel, and instead take control of what you do.” ― Russ Harris