I have many clients that come into therapy that state their goal is to “be happy.” I immediately follow that statement with the questions, “What is happiness to you? What does it look like, feel like, smell like?”
Most can’t answer that question or they provide some vision of happiness that is culturally or socially determined, like, “I want to own my home, be married, have two children, and a dog named Spot.” That isn’t happiness. That’s circumstance. At best it’s an advertisement for a home loan. It’s incredibly impersonal and contingent on the actions of others for a personal goal.
With happiness as a goal, everyone will fail at some point in time. This goal leaves no room for moments that you can’t control, like job loss or the death of a loved one. When you experience unplanned events, the reality of life’s ups and downs rears its head and you find yourself outside your happy place – only this time you feel an extra failure because of an inability to maintain happiness. Truthfully, many people come in to therapy with that burden of perceived failure already on their shoulders.
All emotions are temporary. Happiness, sadness, and fear, fleet across the movie screen of the mind as we experience events, tell ourselves things about those events, and then experience the related feeling.
In the modern age of psychology the emphasis has largely been placed on feeling happy, which delivers the silent message that anything other than happiness is uncomfortable or undesirable. With that message at the forefront we panic at the discomfort of some of our emotions and immediately seek to correct them with whatever is handy.
Medication, an extra beer at dinner, an extra stack of flautas at dinner, some marijuana – all things we do to feel better in our moments.
The inability to tolerate emotional discomfort is the problem most of us face, rather than an inability to achieve sustained happiness. Working hard to avoid unpleasant feelings creates new problems like weight gain, stress, and feelings of failure when we don’t feel happy. We’re working harder and longer to stuff painful or unpleasant emotions down, and in that avoidance we become less and less tolerant of the normal swings in life.
It’s important to realize that we can’t selectively numb emotions. We can’t turn the volume down on sadness or anger without impacting the level of joy we experience.
Anger is a feeling people often tell me they’d like to control. Often when coming in for counseling they’ve been “controlling” it by never speaking about it to anyone until the wrong button is pushed and they hit someone they care for or scream at a coworker. Their feeling of having to avoid the anger and not experience or tolerate it causes the explosion, not the anger itself. They learned early on through example and social cues that anger isn’t something to share rather than an appropriate set of ways to share or cope with it.
Anger in itself isn’t a dangerous or “bad” emotion. It can serve as a great motivator. It can serve as an indicator of passion we feel about a topic, a relationship, or values.
Sadness isn’t a “bad” emotion. How would you know something really mattered to you if the thought of its loss didn’t create a feeling of sadness?
The purpose of emotion is communication. A feeling communicates within us a notice of, “Hey, danger! This is scary!” or “I love this person so much, they’re a huge part of my life!” for example. When that message is important we have a physiological response. We shake, cry, become red in the face, and breathe harder. Emotions increase in intensity until they’re expressed and validated.
Validation is a key component in emotional expression within healthy relationships. It’s difficult to avoid the knee-jerk response of punishing a child for a loud and outward display of displeasure at Wal-Mart when their request for a toy is denied. Taking the time to pause that response, look into those angry toddler eyes and say, “I know you’re angry. I get angry when I can’t have what I want too. It hurts,” can make all the difference.
The same is true internally. When we experience a so-called negative emotion, we can say to ourselves, “This emotion is just a feeling. It will pass soon. I wouldn’t feel so intensely if I didn’t care and caring is a good thing. Anyone would feel __________ if they were met with this. I don’t have to judge myself for feeling this way.”
Contentment, rather than happiness, is the goal. A place inside the self that says, “I’m ok and you’re ok.” That place makes room for life’s twists and turns. It doesn’t offer us one extreme versus another – like happiness or sadness.
That place is increasingly hard to find when stuffing emotions, holding them at bay, numbing them with substances or distractions. Using a thing to cope may get you through a tough spot, but learning to tolerate discomfort is an important aspect of resiliency and mental health.
Speak Positive Truth to Yourself
Instead of feeling clammy hands, sensing shaking insides, and a rapid heart rate and telling yourself, “Oh, I’m so anxious. This is going to be bad.” Try consciously telling yourself, “My heart rate is up because I’m preparing to meet this challenge head on!”
In moments of anger when you feel shaking and red faced or ready to explode, don’t berate yourself for your response to the situation. Instead of, “I can’t ever control my anger! This makes me want to explode!” Try out, “I wouldn’t respond this way if I didn’t care so deeply about ______.”
Talking to yourself this way can help you utilize emotions, even ones you’ve been telling yourself are “bad”, to your advantage. You’ll learn to tolerate them and capitalize on them.
Research out of Stanford University has shown this to be effective. Case in point: researchers there have uncovered that stress is only dangerous and life threatening to people who believe it to be so. These people are the ones that say, “Oh no, I’m stressing. I’ve got to stop. I always do this! Stress is bad!”
The next time life hands you pain, walk into it. Allow this experience for yourself with the understanding that it will grow you and increase your ability to return to contentment. Think of these experiences as exposure therapy. By exposing yourself to situations that generate pain or even the potential for disliked emotions, you build a tolerance to them.
Be Real About Happiness
All emotions are fleeting when we allow ourselves the energy and time to process them. Researchers say that most emotions lessen in intensity or pass altogether after about 2 minutes. Allow yourself the two minutes.
Be honest about happiness. Think back to your most recent happy time – a vacation, a major purchase, time with family. Are you as happy in this moment about those things as you were while you were in them? Nope – no way you are. Those experiences are memories now and they are tainted with whatever emotional residue and so you can feel the pang of happiness they brought. But you aren’t jumping up and down happy still. That doesn’t mean you aren’t “generally happy” (or content as I call it). It means that happiness the way that we would have it – an ongoing feeling, an observable absence of difficulties (that are out of our control and therefore unrealistic to attempt managing) doesn’t exist. Contentment is good. Without a place to reach happiness from, we couldn’t tell the difference between happiness and anything else. We’d lose the ability to communicate with ourselves about our own lives.
Avoid the Circle
When experiencing a painful emotion we tend to either avoid it or set up a tent and camp out in it for a while. The Buddha described the punishment of both of these as two arrows. The first arrow hits us with the pain – an event we can’t change or predict. Then we prolong the suffering by hiding it, belittling ourselves for it, using substances to cover it, etc. – which is the second arrow.
Using mindfulness is a great way to avoid that circular trap that fires the second arrow. It teaches allowing ourselves to sit with our experiences in the present moment, without judgment, with kindness and question, rather than focusing in on it (“I’ll always hurt like this, this always happens to me.). Ask yourself as a painful emotion occurs, “How can I hold this pain with kindness?”
For more info on mindfulness I recommend Jon Kabbat-Zin’s Mindfulness for Beginners. You can also check out this blog.
As you work toward developing an ability to tolerate discomfort remember this oft social media shared quote: Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.
If you’re not happy your definition of happiness, the reality of life’s unpredictability, or your current practices of coping aren’t helpful. Help yourself out by being real, finding your definition, utilizing mindfulness, and speaking positive truths about your emotions.
Happy Happiness Hunting,
*If you’re in Texas and would like help finding your own “happy”, reach out for counseling by visiting my contact page!