Mythbusting Happiness

canstockphoto3078225The harsh reality is that while life is full of pleasures and fun and enjoyable experiences, life also involves pain. We can’t avoid it but we can learn to handle it much better (Harris 6).

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away. . . we all know the fairy tale. But at least with Star Wars we knew it was fiction (it was fiction right?). Think back to all the stories we read to our kids or have had read to us. Most feature the ending:  “. . . and they lived happily ever after.” Does that fit your experience in life – yea, mine either. Let’s look at some other myths that keep us believing that happiness is some permanent state of mind:

  1. MYTH – happiness is the natural state for all human beings: Hmm, 1 out of 10 people will attempt suicide, 1 in 5 will suffer from depression and you have a 30% chance of suffering from some kind of psychiatric disorder at some point in your life (Harris 9). Fact is that most of us are unhappy because we think everyone else is walking around being happy and we’re the ones with the problem.
  2. MYTH – if you’re not happy you’re defective. Western society assumes that suffering is abnormal – its seen as a weakness or defect (Harris 10). Fact: you’re not defective, you’re just doing what your mind has evolved to do.
  3. MYTH – to create a better life we must get rid of negative feelings. We live in a feel-good society and truth be told, no one likes being around someone who is unhappy (or at least more miserable than we are – we don’t like our misery being one-upped, do we?). Fact: the things we value most in life typically bring a range of human emotions, from pleasure, to frustration and disappointment (Harris 11). But kind of like the Garth Brooks song, The Dance. Would you have avoided having the pain if it also meant avoiding having the pleasure of the experience or person in your life? Probably not.
  4. MYTH – you should be able to control what you think and feel. Great, now I’m expected to be Mr. Spock. The myth here is that if you fill your head with positive thoughts and images you will discover the key to happiness (Harris 11). Fact: you have little control over your thoughts and feelings, but we do have a huge amount of control over our actions. That’s the good news!

While we’re on the subject of myths, lets talk about the biggest one of all – the myth that you’re in control. As Bill Cosby used to say, yea right! Look folks, in my lifetime I’ve been in about 3 or 4 car accidents, one that nearly took my life, and one plane crash – in none of these cases was I “at the wheel.” I’ve almost stepped in front of a bus that was running a stoplight in mid town Manhattan (thank you to the unknown New Yorker who grabbed my shoulder to pull me back in time), and numerous other times I’ve been in situations where “but for the grace of God go I.” The list of stuff we can’t control that directly or indirectly affects our needs for food, water, shelter and sex will go beyond the capacity of the Internet to list (although I’m sure someone will try).

“The ebb and flow of the Atlantic tides, the drift of the continents, the very position of the sun along its ecliptic. THESE are just a FEW of the things I control in my world! Is that clear?” Master Chief John Urgayle (played by actor Viggo Mortensen) from the movie GI Jane:

While Master Chief may have it figured out (don’t all Master Chief’s have these powers?), all I know is the ONE thing I do have under my control and that is my actions. But, most of the time, that’s enough. I also have another very important thing under my control and that’s the choices I make about what things mean – this was cited as the last choice of a person by Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor, in his excellent book Man’s Search for Meaning. 

Most of the time we try to get rid of unpleasant or unwanted feelings through the use of control strategies (Harris 21). There are essentially two of them: fight or flight. Flight strategies include hiding or escaping, distracting yourself or zoning out or numbing up (Harris 21-22). Fight strategies include arguing, taking charge, self-bullying and suppression (Harris 21-22). Now we know why drugs and alcohol are so popular – they help in pretty much either one of these cases (in the short term of course). Control strategies do work sometimes, provided they are in moderation, used in situations where they can work and using them doesn’t stop you from doing the things you value (Harris 23). Many self-help books are filled with ways to distract yourself in order to avoid bad feelings.

The degree of control we have over our thoughts and feelings depends on their intensity (Harris 25). The less intense the situation, the more control we have (Harris 25). Or maybe its just the situation you’re in. Maybe you need a better job or a better partner, or a new hobby or contribute to charity (Harris 29), but all these are short term in nature. Eventually the “newness” of a relationship or a job will wear off – while it may still be good and offer pleasure, purpose and enjoyment, there will be difficult times again.

“The core component of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is based on six psychological principles that work together to help you develop a life-changing mind-set known as psychological flexibility,” — Harris (33).

The six core principles are:

  1. Defusion: this allows you to relate to your thoughts in a new way so they have less impact on you (Harris 33).
  2. Expansion: this allows you to make room for unpleasant feelings and sensations instead of trying to suppress them or push them aside (Harris 33).
  3. Connection: this means to connect fully with the here and the now instead of dwelling and living in the past (Harris 34).
  4. The Observing Self: this enables you to transform your relationship with the difficult feelings and thoughts (Harris 34).
  5. Values: this speaks to the person you want to be – that which is significant and meaningful to you (Harris 34), which can also act as navigational beacons to help you move through the bad thoughts and feelings.
  6. Committed Action: this allows you to be guided by your values and take effective action (Harris 34).

The first four principles are the mindfulness skills, meaning a mental state of awareness, openness and focus. Combined with Values and Action, will give you the psychological flexibility to adapt to and move through situations, and help you handle the downs of life, much better.

Harris, RussThe Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living. Boston: Trumpeter, 2008. Print.

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