Imagine for a moment that everything you believe about happiness is wrong?
That the psychologists, psychotherapists and self-help gurus who claim that they have the answers are wrong. Moreover, that most of the information you receive from society is misleading, inaccurate or false.
Not a pretty picture.
Would it be any wonder if suicide, depression and unhappiness were rife?
Because that’s what we have now. Report after report details that levels of well-being in the West are amazingly low. 9 out of 10 people will suffer from some sort of mental health problem in their life. While most people spend their life searching for elusive happiness.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
New research shows that understanding the common myths about happiness helps give us space to escape. In the words of Russ Harris, who wrote on this subject, “we break free of the happiness trap.”
Our beliefs about happiness are commonplace and seem to make sense because everyone believes them. Yet that doesn’t stop them being wrong.
Instead of accepting them unquestioningly and being miserable it’s better to understand and escape their effects. Here’s how:
A quick glance through anyone’s Facebook feed would suggest that everyone was happy. After all they only post the good things. And as part of the developed world, aren’t we supposed to be happy?
We have a higher standard of living than any humans that have ever lived before. We live longer, with less pain, in better conditions. And we have more money and access to education, travel and entertainment. In addition there’s more justice and more opportunities for personal fulfilment. The Kings and Queens of yesteryear did not have it so good. Even Queen Elizabeth in England only had the luxury twelve baths a year.
Despite all this, however, a quick look at the self-help section of a book store suggests that most of us aren’t happy. There are books on depression, anxiety, stress, relationship problems, addiction, divorce and more. The advice on how to improve our lives comes at us from every angle. “Experts” bombard us daily. The number of therapists and life coaches grows year after year.
Yet the statistics suggests little of it works.
All this help and advice is failing.
Conversely, self-reported life-happiness seems to be decreasing.
In any one year approximately 30 percent of adults will suffer from a mental disorder. And that’s just those you meet diagnosable criteria. Hundreds of millions more suffer less sever but still painful afflictions.
Depression is one of the costliest and most debilitating diseases in the world. Stress related absences are the most common in the workplace. Even more shockingly almost one in two people will go through a stage in life where they seriously consider suicide, struggling with it for a period of two weeks or more. One in ten will attempt to kill themselves.
Clearly not everyone is happy.
Happiness seems to be what everyone wants. Even the Dalai Lama says the purpose of life is happiness. Few people, however, seem able to say what it actually is.
The most common meaning of the word applies to feeling good. It means a sense of pleasure or gladness and gratification. When we experience those feelings we enjoy them, so it’s not surprising that we chase them.
But like all human emotions, these feelings of happiness won’t last. They will always fade away with time. If we spend our time chasing these good feelings it will mostly be in vain. A lifetime spent chasing them will be deeply unsatisfying. In fact the evidence shows the harder we chase pleasurable feelings, the more we are likely to suffer anxiety and depression.
The great irony of happiness then is that more you want it the less your likely to achieve it.
Western culture assumes that humans are naturally happy. Everyone lives happily ever after in the movies. Good wins evil, true love blossoms after a few fights, effort is always rewarded, Society assumes that is how life should be. All fun and joy, peace and everyone living happily ever after forever.
The reality, however, is much more different. The human mind wasn’t designed for happiness. It evolved over a hundred years ago. It’s primary goal was to ensure survival.
The caveman who came out of the cave in a state of happy bliss were all killed off. Those that instantly searched and identified threats survived. Our ancestors were adept at anticipating and avoiding danger.
And this is what our minds do today.
We assess and make judgement about almost everything we encounter. The threats have changed. We now worry about redundancy, rejection, public embarrassment or ill-health. Or we worry about the future, what may happen to us or mankind.
In short, the brain is a worry machine.
Yet the majority of these things will not happen.
Not only is happiness taken to be the natural state of humans, mental suffering is taken as abnormal. More often than not, it is seen as a weakness or an illness. It is deemed as being the result of a faulty or defective mind. This means that when we do inevitably experience painful thoughts and feelings, we often criticise ourselves for being weak or stupid.
The reality is much different. The normal thinking process of a health human mind will naturally lead to same suffering.
It does not mean we are defective, your just following what your mind evolved to do.
Rather than believe otherwise it’s better to accept our thoughts and feelings as they are. Learn to relate to them so that they make much less impact and influence on us. And to not let them frighten, dismay or depress us.
Happiness for caveman was never on the cards.
Our society is obsessed with feeling good. It is dogmatic in insisting that we eliminate negative feelings, that we must stop ourselves feeling bad. In the place of negative though and feeling we must substitute passive ones.
It seems like a nice idea and at first glance it may make sense. Who wants to have bad feelings?
But anything you value in life is going to bring a whole range of feelings. Some of them bad. No job, relationship or experience will be perfect, although you may feel wonderful feelings of joy, love freedom, you will also at time experience disrespect, frustration, and loneliness.
Any meaningful project you embark on will bring feelings of excitement and enthusiasm, as well – for most people – stress, fear and anxiety.
There’s no such thing as an easy life.
The ‘experts’ always seem to want to have us believe we can control our thoughts, yet the reality is we have much less control over our thoughts and feelings than we would like. Just try not to think of a pink elephant. It’s almost impossible not to do. And you have no control.
Yet the vast majority of self-help programs subscribe to the ‘control’ myth. They ask us simply to change our negative thoughts and images. To creatively turn them into positive one.
This may work for a while. These techniques do have a temporary effect. But there’s no escaping evolution. A few positive thoughts here and there won’t change much.
Unfortunately since people’s strenuous efforts to maintain positive thoughts always fail, the negative one’s inevitably come back.
And they feel worse.
They feel worse because they believe they have failed.
Yet you can’t fail at an impossible task.
Another essential tool for human survival is belonging to a group. Staying alive in our evolutionary past meant sticking with the clan. Hence our minds are extraordinarily attuned to our status within a group. We are constantly comparing ourselves to others? Our brains ask all the time if we fit in? Are we doing the right things? Are we contributing enough?
So our minds are constantly warning us of rejection and comparing ourselves to the rest of society. No wonder we get so nervous before presentations, or spend so much time wondering if others like us.
The problem is in primitive times we had a few hundred people at most to compare ourselves too. Now we are surrounded by images and stories of a whole host of people who are smarter, richer, slimmer than us. They are more famous, more powerful, and more beautiful. When we expose ourselves to these people we naturally feel disappointed or inferior.
Never mind that the pictures are photoshoped and the stories glamorized. Often hiding the ugly truth.
Worst of all we use these comparisons to create an image of what we should be like – and then compare ourselves to that! And we criticize ourselves for not being that person.
With brains like this it’s no longer we struggle to be happy.
Once we understand how different our brains work compared to how we are told they work. Once we understand that we are hardwired to suffer psychologically. That we instinctively compare, evaluate, and criticise ourselves. That we focus on what we are lacking and become rapidly dissatisfied with what we have. And that we will have no choice but to spend some of our time worrying about things that will never happen.
Once you understand all this you can see how difficult it is for humans to be happy. And why the 7 myths of happiness taken as a whole can be called a trap.
As long as we believe that everyone else is happy, that we should be naturally happy, and that if were not we are defective, then we will find ourselves struggling and blaming ourselves. We will fight and try to control negative thoughts and negative feelings. And we will blame ourselves if we fail.
There is an alternative.
Imagine as for a moment that much of what society believed about happiness was wrong. And now imagine you knew the truth.
You might just be happy in a different way.
Matt is a trained and licenced Mindfulness teacher and Stress and Anxiety Reduction Counsellor operating in and around the Peterborough area. After overcoming his own stress and anxiety he's found his purpose teaching others to do the same.
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