In The News: Our Obsession with Happiness

Our persistent search for the perfect happiness formula has led to many paradoxes. As a nation we have become sadder and more anxious as we search for these golden rules. A study of nations around the globe find that the US ranks 23rd when it comes to life satisfaction, a startling fact for the world’s idealistic superpower.

Part of the reason may lie in the counterculture of experts who observe that our preoccupation with happiness has come at the expense of important “dark” emotions (sadness, for one). In doing so, they argue, we have banished important emotions from our repertoire and become more dependent upon quick fixes.

As a therapist, I must always walk the fine but important line with clients of helping them feel better (more happy) without chasing away valuable feelings of unhappiness. I call these “dark feelings:” anger, jealousy, loneliness, boredom, envy, hate, resentment, etc. They can be directed at oneself or others, and they are incredibly important to discuss in therapy, because ignoring them often makes them grow stronger.

For example: Consider what it’s like to be in the presence of someone who is sad. Grief is not an easy emotion to keep company. Most of us feel uncomfortable after a few minutes (or seconds) and attempt to reassure, change the subject, or lighten the mood. These are our defenses to our own feelings of awkwardness. We “medicate” the moment to spare ourselves (and the griever) further thoughts of sadness.

Yet genuine happiness is not about feeling sunny all of the time. In fact, when we search to eradicate our dark moods we often reach for something short-lasting and/or superficial: food or drink, spending, and other overindulgences of which we might not partake during our happier moments. With proper coping skills, periods of depression or apathy are a normal part of life.

Here are a few highlights about what research says about happiness:

  • We are bad predictors of our own happiness and unhappiness, and underestimate our ability to adapt to events. This is partly because we seem to all have happiness “set points.” A happiness set point has to do with our individual beliefs and coping skills. Lottery winners or hurricane victims both seem to adapt to their original set point of happiness after a period of adjustment. After our basic needs are met, for example, money does not increase happiness (unless you give it away: generosity does.)
  • Some people are born happy, and others have to learn it. This is why I teach cognitive therapy. You CAN learn to change your internal dialogue and positive self-talk is a mark of the mentally healthy.
  • Dark emotions are part of happiness. Life is full of setbacks and disappointments, and those who allow a range of emotions report higher overall satisfaction in life. We need the contrast of dark and light.
  • Happiness is relative to whom you are surrounded by in daily life, and keeping up with the Joneses is a sneaky way of decreasing our happiness. Soon your non-HD TV or cell phone that only makes phone calls (horrors!) makes you feel left out and left behind.
  • Choice can make us unhappy. We think that options will increase our satisfaction, but what they usually do is paralyze us and make us think about all the choices we aren’t choosing.
  • Marriage is the most consistently stable predictor of happiness , even during its unhappy periods.

In my office or on your own, here are some things we can work on to increase happiness:

    • Choose your peer group carefully, and build a community of people you enjoy interacting with regularly. Read more about others’ effects on your life here.
    • Limit your options so you are not always wondering about what you are missing

Embrace your “dark” emotions and your natural coping style, and seek help , for yourself or your relationship, when the first becomes hard to control with the second.