In every life there will be beauty and joy. In every life there will be pain and sadness. And, in most fairy tales the last lines are “…and they lived happily every after.”
Living happily ever after implies that happiness is the natural state for all human beings and this belief is Myth #1 in Russ Harris’ book, The Happiness Trap. Have you ever been able to be happy all the time? Have you ever known anyone who has escaped sadness, pain, anger and frustration, experiencing only happiness, joy and peace in their lifetime?
Myth # 2, according to Harris, is that if you’re not happy, you’re defective. Western society promotes the belief that unhappiness and emotional suffering is abnormal, however, the Buddhist view is that suffering is normal and part of the whole human experience. The experience of happiness and freedom occur when we’re able to allow space for all our emotions, whether we like them or not, and to be committed to experiencing our lives fully.
Myth #3 supports our Western thinking as well by proposing that to create a better life, we must get rid of negative feelings – we must have only positive feelings and thoughts. As an optimistic person, in general, I tend to have a bias in this direction, however, I have to admit to frequently experiencing negative feelings and thinking. I’ve been thoroughly disappointed, fearful, consumed with anxiety and stress and no matter how much work I’ve done to “get rid” of these feelings, I’ve learned that I can’t.
Harris discusses this reality at length and he says this: “Who wants to have unpleasant feelings? But here’s the catch: the things we generally value most in life bring with them a whole range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant.” Things like intimate relationships, meaningful projects and just change, in general, all provide us with experiences of excitement, joy, frustration, disappointment, anxiety and fear. Harris says, “So if you believe Myth #3, you’re in big trouble because it’s pretty well impossible to create a better life if you’re not prepared to have some uncomfortable feelings.”
Myth #4 is that you should be able to control what you think and feel. This is easier said than done, especially if negative thinking and fear or shame-based mindsets have been ingrained in you since childhood. When I work with people in recovery, I tell them that their thoughts are just thoughts – words they’ve used to either describe or protect themselves and that these thoughts have no actual power. I tell them to expect to find themselves defaulting to this type of thinking in times of stress and to be compassionate with themselves as they learn how to react differently. In time, their ability to control their reactions will increase and their understanding that feelings and thoughts won’t “kill them” or cause them to relapse will grow.
If you don’t know of Viktor Frankl (1905 – 1997), Psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, I highly recommend that you read his book, Man’s Search for Meaning. Here is a man who endured unimaginable suffering in his life, and yet, was able to find happiness by finding meaning in each moment. Frankl said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”
I find all of this truly meaningful, inspirational and aspirational. I have seen my ability to hold all of my emotions and thoughts grow by leaps and bounds because today I understand that I am all of it. If I’m feeling any emotion that is negative or upsetting in any way, I liken my experience to being willing to invite my darker self to tea – inviting that part of me to sit and visit – asking questions and learning what it’s all about – listening – being compassionate – giving her the time she needs and then letting her go. I’ve also found that as I have become more aligned with my values, finding meaning in my life and happiness, in general, has become softly ever present – not with constant highs but with an overall appreciation for life and all that it is. It’s a lovely acceptance of my human condition.
Give this some thought and ask yourself, “What is my why? What do I value? What are my feelings telling me? How can I learn from the pain I’m experiencing right now? What does happiness mean for me?
“So it’s not about whether we feel depressed or happy; it’s about our willingness and ability to participate fully in any and all of our feelings. The experience of freedom arises not from acquiring our preferred lifestyle and our preferred state of mind but from a willingness to stay with ourselves – to be completely committed to experiencing our lives – regardless of circumstance.”
~ Bruce Tift, MA, LMFT