It’s safe to say that having a happy*(see note) and meaningful life is a universal desire. A phrase I often hear in my counseling practice, and I’ve used myself, is “I just want to be happy.” Despite this longing, people have difficulty achieving and sustaining happiness, sometimes even sabotaging themselves when things go well. Why does this happen?
One reason this occurs is because we have core beliefs that limit our ability to be happy. Our belief system does not support our goal of happiness, making it difficult to achieve. We end up making choices that support our belief system rather than our goal. One of my negative beliefs, which I’ve shared in a past post, the-conundrum.html, is that I shouldn’t be happy when others are suffering. I’ve also heard people share their belief that they don’t deserve to be happy or if there’re happy, they’re betraying a loved one who has died. In this post, I want to address a belief that has been prevalent in my practice over the past few months, that being happy somehow puts us at risk and remaining depressed protects us.
I’ve had clients say that whenever they’re happy, bad things happen, so, they’re reluctant to create a more positive mood state. Others say that if they allow themselves to be happy, bad things will still happen, or their depression will return, and this fall from happiness back to depression is more painful than remaining depressed. Others believe that they cope better with life’s challenges if they’re already depressed, that somehow a negative mood state strengthens them to cope with negative events. If we’re not currently depressed, or these beliefs are not ones we’re challenged with, it’s easy to see they are distorted and not based in reality. But when they are subconscious and hidden, these beliefs can play a powerful role in our mood.
Bringing our negative beliefs to light illuminates the conflict between our goal of happiness and our belief system. It’s impossible to achieve a goal if we don’t have the beliefs to support it. The options in this case then are to accept unhappiness based on the current belief system, or change the beliefs to support the goal of being happy.
Assuming that everyone wants happiness, let’s start by challenging the belief that “bad things happen when I’m happy.” This is a true statement, but bad and good things take place all the time. It only makes sense that occasionally something bad will happen when we’re happy, but there’s no data to support this as a cause and effect relationship. We need to release this and embrace the exact opposite, “good things happen when I’m happy.” This belief is supported by scientific research and most likely from our own lives, if we take time to reflect. When we’re happy our brain is not biased towards the negative, and we’re able to notice the beauty, kindness, and abundance that’s always present, and this awareness sustains our positive mood state. When we’re not depressed we have more energy, motivation and confidence. This puts us in a position to create healthier relationships, take care of our physical health, and push ourselves outside our comfort zone to achieve new things, all actions which contribute to positive outcomes. Although bad things happen no matter what our mood, we need to adopt the belief that “more good things occur with a positive mood.”
The other two beliefs, that the fall from happiness to depression is more painful than remaining depressed, and that a negative mood state will provide strength for coping with bad things, can both be challenged by the research on resilience. Resilience, according to the American Psychological Association, is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. It means "bouncing back" from difficult experiences. If we’re going to deal with life’s challenges, or a cycle back into depression, resilience is what we need, not a depressed mood.
If we were lucky enough to grow up in a safe, loving environment, free of abuse and neglect, we were given a head start in resilience. Fortunately resilience can be cultivated, no matter what our background. Research has identified that supportive relationships, positive self image, problem solving skills, optimism, adaptability, self regulation and a sense of purpose all contribute to our ability to bounce back from adversity. So, if we want to rebound from a bout of depression or a negative event, we need to learn the skills that foster resilience, not remain immobilized in depression. Our core belief should change to “resilience helps me cope with adversity.”
Rarely does one conversation, or blog post, change a life long core belief, but it can begin the process. Once we’re aware of our negative core belief, the fact that it’s distorted and doesn’t support our goal of happiness, we can identify when we’re letting this belief control our behavior. We can also look into our own lives, and the lives of those we admire, for evidence that contradicts our negative core belief. This work can be done alone through self reflection or journaling, or in the company of others like a trusted friend or therapist. Occasionally, in the case of severe clinical depression, awareness alone is not enough and medication may be required.
Once we’ve adopted beliefs that support happiness, our thoughts and behaviors will align with the new beliefs. We believe in our end goal, so we’ll be more motivated to commit to the habits that create happiness and less likely to sabotage ourselves. This work takes some time and focus, but it’s not a selfish endeavor because when you’re able to experience joy and happiness, you can share it with others. And doesn’t our world need more of this?
*NOTE* I’m not a fan of the word happy, as this denotes a transient emotional state. I prefer the term flourish, from positive psychology. In order to flourish we need positive mood states such as happiness, but also supportive relationships, meaning, engagement and accomplishments. Because most folks use the word happy, I have used it in this post, but know I am referring to the multidimensional concept of flourishing.