An argument against happiness
There is a lot to be said for the motivational literature that circulates the Internet. I do enjoy the odd glance at the “10 Ways To Live A Happy Life” articles that can be found on blogs and even in mainstream media publications these days. We all need uplifting words and helpful personal anecdotes to assist us to feel that we are not alone in our struggles. But… and there is a big BUT here…I do think that happiness is getting way too much publicity in our society.
I do believe in thinking positively and being optimistic. That’s a separate issue. But happy? This is a state, an emotion, a feeling. And by its very definition is transient and short lived. Happiness is not a destination. It is not a place that we get to if we play our cards right. So what is it then?
Happiness as an emotion not a destination
As a therapist, I am in the business of emotions. My work involves eliciting, containing and modulating the full range of human emotions. There is not a single person who comes to therapy who doesn’t need to express their feelings. And let me tell you, it’s not happiness they’re coming to process! So why then all this focus on happiness? What about sadness, despair, longing, missing, fear, anxiety, anger, rejection, frustration, grief, etc?
In my opinion, joy or happiness is just a transient emotion no different from any of the above. It arrives and it departs. It’s a visitor. But what about all the rest? How are we as a society helping our brothers and sisters to cope with and express all the other different feelings that visit us?
Happiness is boring
One of the things that I have learnt as a therapist is to be able to track my own feelings while in a session and use this information as a way of understanding the client better. For example, we are taught that if you feel bored in a session then you need to interrogate that experience and ask yourself what that’s about. Is it about you, the client, or something in the relationship? Usually it’s all three.
What I can tell you, is that clients who come and tell me “everything is going so well” or “I feel so happy about that” are usually bullshitting themselves and me. And it’s boring. But I’m compassionate to their experience. And what I have learned is that more often than not the reason for these declarations is due to the expectation that talking about the “bad stuff” will make it worse. But 10 out of 10 times the real work of therapy and the real change comes from facing those negative feelings that hang around when happiness is out of town.
I’m okay, you’re okay
So yes this is the title of a famous self help book. And no I haven’t read it. I’ve got it but I can’t bring myself to turn the pages. Because no matter how much sense it makes, I am angered by the industry of happiness that tells people to show up in this limited way.
Why do we tell people to be happy?
Is it because we get uncomfortable at the sight of their misery? Is it because their discomfort reminds us of our own? Is it because we don’t actually have to do anything about happiness but somehow we feel compelled to act when someone is in distress?
How we allow others to appear to us
Every single one of my clients comes to me with their difficult feelings. They come with their sadness, their grief, and their pain. They come to me with their confusion, their sense of being overwhelmed, and their lost-ness. They come with their shame, guilt and embarrassment. They come with their fear, their anxiety, and their panic. They come with their anger, rage, and frustration.
And they are all surprised when I can sit with it. For some, I am the first person that has ever asked them to talk about these feelings. For many of them, this process only starts after many sessions because they are so frightened to express these feelings and it takes time for them to trust that it’s okay.
So why is this? Why are there so many of us who are walking around on this planet sharing only a portion of ourselves with the world?
My clients are not the only ones. We have all – whether via our parents, our friends, our lovers, or the media – been given the message that negative feelings are to be avoided. We have been told to show our happiness, to shout “Yay!” and “woohoo”, to jump, and to shriek with excitement. We have been told to tell funny stories and to say positive things and to laugh. And in and of themselves, these ideas do no harm. Gosh I am not trying to promote doom and gloom. But if we ONLY encourage these states, what is being left out? What is being ignored? And at what cost?
Feeling bad is part of life
I don’t think I really need to do much convincing of this point. We all know it. And when we allow others to feel that they cannot bring their “bad” feelings to us we are telling them that a part of them, a very large part for that matter, is not welcome. We all just want to feel accepted. It is the most fundamental thing that connects all humans. Being accepted doesn’t mean being liked for exhibiting a certain portion of yourself, for “presenting” yourself like a 2D character. Being accepted is about being yourself, whole and flawed, exquisitely imperfect and vulnerable, like we all are.
Bad feelings are not a virus
One of the biggest misconceptions about negative emotions is that acknowledging them will cause them to linger or even multiply. It’s as if we’ve bought this notion that feeling bad is like a virus that infects our cells and spreads throughout our system. Our defense against this “infection” is to keep ourselves from experiencing negative feelings in an attempt to keep them from our healthy, “happy” cells. But I am here to tell you that this is a fallacy!
I have worked with many people from different walks of life, with different problems and with different levels of support. And I can tell you that when you feel your feelings, when you face yourself and own up to your negative experiences in an honest and reflective way YOU DO NOT FEEL WORSE! My entire professional existence rests on the notion that talking about feelings actually helps you feel better. And I am 100% sure of this fact. Yes, there are times (like immediately after a trauma) when talking about a negative event can do more harm than good but in general, people who come to therapy are coming to deal with the feelings that have been over-staying their welcome.
And what they find, is that even though they think they have thought about these feelings and experiences in their own minds, it does wonders to be able to share it with someone else. And they cry. They sit and writhe in their emotional pain. And it’s not necessarily fun, pretty or “nice”. But it’s real. And once it’s over (because it always shifts) there is a sense of relief. I watch the weigh lift from their shoulders. I see the sands washed clean from the waves of emotion. And they don’t feel like the bad feelings multiple. They don’t tell me it gets worse. They all say that they feel better, that they feel lighter, that they feel braver and stronger and more capable of coping with the next wave when it hits.
The take-home message
Allow yourself to consider the fact that happiness is just a transient state and that the rest of the time you are likely to feel a range of other emotions and experiences that can be described as negative, difficult or bad. Consider the fact that there is a pressure to perform a role in society and more often than not we are required to demonstrate our joy and not our sadness. Ask yourself if you are doing all that you can to allow and promote the sharing of difficult feelings with yourself, your friends, your family members or even with strangers. What keeps you from sharing these? What keeps you from feeling okay with others’ difficult feelings? Negative emotions and are not a virus that spreads and multiples. We do not have to be afraid that we will be so overcome with affect that we can no longer function. Allow the fear as the wave approaches, sit with the discomfort as it envelops you, and express the relief as it retreats back again. You will feel better if you acknowledge the presence of these emotions. Find someone to talk to. Risk sharing these tender parts of yourself. Brave an encounter in which you show your whole self. And trust that you are going to be made strong by the experience, not weaker.