I regularly hear from people that they ‘want to be happier’. An understandable desire. However, if someone is feeling low, the next step is not to feel happy, but it is to feel. And rarely do I hear anyone say, “Can you help me feel more sadness, more anger, more fear?” along with their request to feel more happiness.
Some of the world’s most common ideas about happiness create what is referred to as a “happiness trap”. These ideas, created by Russ Harris, are misleading and when you believe them or let them rule your life, it often makes you feel shame, stress, or just plain miserable!
So what are these myths, and how do they impact you?
Myth 1: Happiness is the natural state for human beings.
This is the idea that perpetual happiness is the natural state for human beings. The myth goes that if you give a person enough food, shelter, and connection, they will feel happy all the time. The reality of being human, though, is that we experience an ever-changing flow of emotions – which is normal and natural. This is the natural state – to have a range of different experiences and emotions, from joy to despair and all the other emotions in between. No one is happy 24/7 – regardless of what we see in the world around us.
Myth 2: If you are not happy, you are defective.
For many reasons, our society assumes that any sort of mental suffering is abnormal. It’s viewed as a weakness or an illness. This means that when we do experience painful thoughts and feelings, we often criticize ourselves for this. The reality is that if you are not always happy – you are normal. Human life is difficult a lot of the time and our minds are tricky – often getting us caught up in something. Sometimes life is pleasant and we are happy, and sometimes life is hard. We are not defective or broken if we are not always happy. Our mind is just doing its job – the thing it evolved to do.
Myth 3: To create a better life, we must get rid of negative feelings.
We live in a feel-good society, a culture obsessed with finding happiness. Everywhere we look, people are happy. Social media is a “happiness reel”. So what does society tell us to do? To eliminate ‘negative’ feelings and accumulate ‘positive’ ones in their place. It’s a nice theory, because after all, who wants unpleasant feelings?
But here is the catch: the things we generally value in life bring with them a full range of feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant. Think about a relationship. Although you experience positive feelings such as love and joy, you will also inevitably experience disappointment and anger. This holds true for just about every meaningful thing we embark on.
Myth 4: You should be able to control what you think and feel.
We have much less control over our thoughts and feelings than we would like. But, it’s not that we have no control, we just have a larger amount of control over our actions. And it’s through action we create a meaningful life – which brings us happiness!
There are many approaches that teach us to identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones or the repetition of positive affirmations. The basic theme of these approaches is that if you challenge your negative thoughts or images with positive ones, you will find happiness. If only life were that simple. It’s not that these techniques have no effect; they can often make you feel better temporarily. But they will not get rid of negative thoughts. The same holds true for negative emotions.
Emotion, in and itself, is not the issue. It’s all of what we do to avoid, eliminate, or run from it. We don’t get to choose to only feel happy and skip over other feelings like anger or sadness. Thoughts and feelings pass – they are not permanent. It is what we do with these thoughts and feelings that break the vicious cycle. Welcome the thoughts and feelings in, be right here and now with them.
These myths set us up for a struggle we cannot win: the struggle against our own human nature. When we can see beyond these myths about happiness, we have the opportunity to connect deeply to all the aspects of our life, including the highs and lows, the ups and downs. We can live with more self-acceptance, presence, and embrace ourselves and our life – wholeheartedly.
Until next time,