We all want to be happy, I suppose, each in our own way. But, as we say, “Life” often gets in the way. We don’t get the promotion, our relationship doesn’t work, our cars break down, it rains. Sometimes our dog or cat dies, which is very sad.
Sometimes worse things happen.
Here is an idea that has perhaps never occurred to you: in order to be happy we sometimes have to be unhappy. We have to LEARN how to be unhappy.
Why would this be? I will explain. For the longest time, American psychologists in particular thought that to be happy you just needed to act happy. You’ve met these people. They are relentlessly positive. And they tend to be a generation or two older than most of us; and for me at least something always seemed missing.
What contemporary psychologists have figured out is that no emotional state can become stable unless all the competing alternatives are allowed expression. Specifically, if sadness is repressed, then it doesn’t go away but becomes stronger. If fear is repressed it doesn’t go away, but manifests as chronic anxiety.
So acceptance of the “bad” is the gateway to the good. This is the teaching of, as an example, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). To be happy you can’t reject those times when unhappiness is natural. You have to stay emotionally present. You have to practice, in effect, the process of being consciously unhappy.
And it continues to surprise me, but many folks never read Martin Seligman’s excellent “Learned Optimism.” He describes practical and honest ways to be more optimistic. Specifically, you need to learn how to reframe things in more useful ways, which in Cognitive Psychology consists in changing, slightly, the story you tell yourself. Most of us tell stories unconsciously. Much of Cognitive Psychology consists in learning new ways of telling those stories consciously.,
In his schema, the Big Three are Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization. If you want to become severely depressed, what you need to do is assume bad things will last forever, that a setback in one part of your life will quickly generalize to your whole life, and that it is ALL YOUR FAULT. This is a great strategy for misery.
Conversely, if you want to become functionally tougher without becoming fake and superficial, it’s useful to remind yourself that bad things end. Whatever your politics, whatever “bad” thing you don’t like–and we all tend to think our own views are the only correct ones, but “bad” in my experience is highly subjective–it is unlikely to last forever. This is simply fact, or always has been.
If you have a setback in one part of your life–like a job loss or business you had to discontinue–your dog still loves you. Your wife or husband or kids, if you have them–and if they did before–still love you. You still play a mean game of pool, have the best decorated home in your city, or make the best Steak Au Poivre on your block. A bad thing one place doesn’t mean bad things everywhere. It’s just one part of your life, even if an important one.
Finally, what happens to us in life usually has something to do with us as individuals, but often much of it is random and out of our control. Be honest about this. None of us could have controlled what happened over the past two years, which have been hard on many people in many ways. They have been hard on businesses, and hard on mental health. If you have found all this difficult, then you are not alone in that, and feeling those feelings is natural.
So even though mentioning all this is a bit sad, I haven’t changed anything by telling the truth, have I? And each of us, in feeling our own truths, honestly, personally, vividly, is opening up a gateway to what happiness is possible for us, which I think is a marvelously good thing.
And I will save this for another email, but happiness is one of the best routes to lasting health.