The Pursuit of Happiness - Counselling Newsletter

Published: 8 Oct 2018

Is Happiness Normal?

In the western world we now have a higher standard of living than humans have ever known before. We have better medical treatment, more and better food, better housing conditions, better sanitation, more money, more welfare services and more access to education, justice, travel, entertainment and career opportunities. Indeed, today’s middle class lives better than did the royalty of not so long ago, and yet, human misery is everywhere.

The psychology and personal development sections of bookstores are growing at a rate never seen before, and the bookshelves are groaning under the strain. The titles cover depression, anxiety, anorexia nervosa, overeating, anger management, divorce, relationship problems, sexual problems, drug addictions, alcoholism, low self-esteem, loneliness, grief, you name it it’s there. And yet — now, think about this — with all this help and advice and worldly wisdom, human misery is not diminishing but growing by leaps and bounds! Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

We are Geared for Danger

With each generation the human mind became increasingly skilled at predicting and avoiding danger. And now, after a hundred thousand years of evolution, the modern mind is still constantly on the lookout for trouble. It assesses and judges almost everything we encounter: Is this good or bad? Safe or dangerous? Harmful or helpful? These days, though, it’s not sabre-toothed cats or 200-kilogram wolves that our mind warns us about. Instead it’s losing our job, being rejected, getting a speeding ticket, not being able to pay the bills, embarrassing ourselves in public, upsetting our loved ones or any of a million and one other common worries. As a result we spend a lot of time worrying about things that, more often than not, never happen.

Another essential for the survival of any early human is to belong to a group. If your clan boots you out, it won’t be long before the wolves find you. So how does the mind protect you from rejection by the group? By comparing you with other members of the clan: Am I fitting in? Am I doing the right thing? Am I contributing enough? Am I as good as the others? Am I doing anything that might get me rejected?

Thus, evolution has shaped our minds so that we are almost inevitably destined to suffer psychologically; to compare, evaluate and criticise ourselves; to focus on what we’re lacking; to be dissatisfied with what we have; and to imagine all sorts of frightening scenarios, most of which will never happen. No wonder humans find it hard to be happy!

What is Happiness?

The word ‘happiness’ has two very different meanings. Usually it refers to a feeling; a sense of pleasure, gladness or gratification. We all enjoy happy feelings, so it’s no surprise that we chase them. However, like all our other feelings, feelings of happiness don’t last. No matter how hard we try to hold on to them, they slip away every time. And as we shall see, a life spent in pursuit of those feelings is, in the main, unsatisfying. In fact, the harder we pursue pleasurable feelings, the more we are likely to suffer from anxiety and depression.

The other meaning of happiness is ‘a rich, full and meaningful life’. When we take action on the things that truly matter deep in our hearts, when we move in directions that we consider valuable and worthy, when we clarify what we stand for in life and act accordingly, then our lives become rich, full and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality. This is not some fleeting feeling — it is a profound sense of a life well lived. And although such a life will undoubtedly give us many pleasurable feelings, it will also give us uncomfortable ones, such as sadness, fear and anger. This is only to be expected. If we live a full life, we will feel the full range of human emotions.

The reality is, life involves pain. There’s no getting away from it. As human beings we are all faced with the fact that sooner or later we will grow infirm, get sick and die. Sooner or later we all will lose valued relationships through rejection, separation or death. Sooner or later we all will come face-to-face with a crisis, disappointment and failure. This means that in one form or another, we are all going to experience painful thoughts and feelings. The good news is that, although we can’t avoid such pain, we can learn to handle it much better — to make room for it, accept it, rise above it and create a life worth living.

Acceptance and Mindfulness

Acceptance means opening up and making room for painful feelings and sensations. You learn how to drop the struggle with them, give them some breathing space, and let them be there without getting all caught up in them, or overwhelmed by them; the more you can open up, and give them room to move, the easier it is for your feelings to come and go without draining you or holding you back.

Mindfulness is one strategy that can help you to stop struggling with painful feelings. Explore the Act Mindfully website for information on this strategy and more.

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