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Mental Notes
Musings on creativity, psychology and living better

Happy is Overrated

Monday, July 7 7:37 AM

Remember Pharrell’s song “Happy” from last month? Does it still make you happy to hear it, or does it make you want to go on a murderous rampage? I’ll be pleading the 5th on that one.

There’s a fine line, it turns out, between uplifting and irritating. And there are times when you just don’t want to be told to “be happy”. Pain and suffering are an inevitable part of our lives. Denying that reality just adds to our misery by creating a false expectation that we always have control over how we feel and where our life takes us.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) posits that all this positive thinking is a sure-fire set up for failure and disappointment. In his book, “The Happiness Trap”, Russ Harris claims that in order to improve our lives, we should learn to embrace and accept our suffering, as well as all things that are outside of our control, and clarify what is truly important and meaningful to us so we can be guided by our values rather than by a quest for happiness.

Parents are especially vulnerable to imparting this happiness trap to their children. When does it ever feel good to see your child upset? We are hard-wired to want to remove all suffering from our children’s lives and ensure that they always are fulfilled and feeling good. However, we are doing them a disservice if we don’t teach them how to tolerate upset feelings as well as the good ones. Kids also need to learn from us that doing the right thing is not always doing the easy thing, or what feels good in the moment. My daughter knows this because sometimes, when I tell her she can’t have a second ice cream, or a 5th hour of screen time, she will say to me: “I still need you to save me from myself”!

Co-dependent relationships hinge upon the premise that it is intolerable for one or the other partner not to be “Ok”. Here too the happiness trap is at work, as the co-dependent partners do backbends to try to prevent each other from ever feeling any kind of pain, creating more and more frustration, stress, and helplessness in the process. How many enabling partners or family members of addicts will repeatedly clean up the mess the addiction creates in their home because they want to spare the addict (and themselves) the pain that would result from coming out of denial?

So how do we get out of this mindset?

First, abandon all hopes of being happy all the time. I know that seems obvious, but think about how often you resist feelings of distress or upset by drinking, eating, tuning out, blaming others, or just mentally refusing to accept your situation? Marsha Linehan, in her writings on Dialectical Behavioral Therapy states: “Pain creates suffering only when you refuse to ACCEPT the pain”. Refusing to accept pain is like kicking yourself while you are down. We are not entitled to happiness, despite what much of our culture tells us. We are simply here to do the best that we can with what life throws our way.

Second, stop being afraid of pain. Pain is not what destroys us. It’s all the crazy stuff we do to avoid it that makes it a problem. I once saw this TV special about a child who was born without the ability to feel pain, and trust me, it was a major liability in his life. His parents were terrified that he would get deathly injured and not even know it. So make pain your friend.

Third, find beauty in the ups and downs of life. Think about the art and culture that you consume. Isn’t it so much better when there is some intensity? How much did you love Game of Thrones, or Breaking Bad? Darkness and chaos are intrinsic to good art, and good art speaks to the parts of us that are often unseen, unspoken, and tucked away under the civilities of our day-to-day existence. So find a pathway to those experiences within you that are deep and raw and beautiful.

Finally, live your life by your values, not your desire for convenience. Spend some time thinking about what is really important to you, and then ask yourself if you live your life accordingly. If you are clear about what is meaningful to you, you will have an easier time making decisions when faced with a dilemma, and you will be motivated to bear some discomfort if it is a means to an end.

The Art Therapy Solution?
Creative therapies are a great way to achieve all of these goals. Making art in a safe environment with a trusted therapist allows you to sort out your values, connect with deeper and darker parts of yourself, and express them in a way that has beauty, meaning, and form. You may be surprised by what comes out if you are willing to explore the depths of your psyche, and may find that there are many riches to behold if you can accept the contradictions, fears and yearnings that lie within.