A Harvard psychologist says too many people think about happiness all wrong
Business InsiderAugust 23, 2016
Generally speaking, trying hard is a great way to achieve most of what you want in life.
Put in more effort at work and your prospects for a promotion will almost definitely improve — at least more than they would if you simply accepted the status quo of being a slacker.
Date a lot of people and you’ll have a better chance of meeting your soulmate than if you stayed at home moping on the couch.
So if it’s happiness you want, it makes sense to think that actively trying to be happier is the sure path to getting there, especially compared to resigning yourself to a future of never smiling again.
But psychologists are increasingly discovering that when it comes to happiness, trying can backfire. Instead, the paradoxical key to true happiness seems to be accepting unhappiness — not forcing yourself to feel how you don’t.
Susan David calls it “showing up” to your emotions.
David is a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of the new book “Emotional Agility.” In the book, she teaches readers to deal with their emotions in a healthy way, so that they’re neither hiding them nor letting their feelings control their behavior.
Once you learn to reckon with your emotions, David argues, you’ll live a fuller, more authentic life.
When I met with David in August, she told me:
“When we have a particular goal around happiness, what it can lead us to doing is to marking every disappointment, every setback, every concern as being proof that we’re not happy enough or almost proof that we’ve failed in our attempt to be happy. And it’s just not a realistic way of living.”
There’s a growing body of evidence behind this idea.
In the book, David cites a study that found people who were asked to read about the benefits of happiness were less happy after watching a happy film than people who read something unrelated.
Meanwhile, last year I reported on research that found the more people value happiness (for example, by strongly agreeing with the statement, “If I don’t feel happy, maybe there is something wrong with me,”), the lower their overall well-being.
David had some insight on why this might be true: “When people are very unhappy and are focused on thinking positive, what it can actually lead them to do is to then push difficult thoughts and emotions aside.”
Think of it as sweeping your difficult feelings under the rug inside your mental living room. Sure, it looks perfect, but it’s only a matter of time before the junk starts spilling out.
David said it’s important to pay close attention to those negative emotions, because they’re usually trying to tell you something. For example, maybe you feel frustrated with your boss. The quick fix would be to minimize your frustration and pretend that everything’s fine.
Instead, David encourages people to explore that frustration — maybe you’re upset because your boss didn’t give a coworker due credit for a project. What that signals to you is that fairness is a really important value for you.
“That information is really, really important,” David said. “So what happens when we focus too much on being happy is we actually push aside critical information that helps us to learn and adapt in our lives. And that helps us to forge a life that is connected with our own heartbeat.”
That’s where "showing up” comes in:
“What I mean by ‘showing up’ is stopping any struggle that you might have within yourself about whether you should feel something, shouldn’t feel something, should think something, shouldn’t think something, whether it’s a bad thought or good thought.”
It’s just a thought.
“In a weird way,” David said, “acceptance is a precursor to change.”
When you listen to those negative emotions, and when you let them arise without judgment, you gain valuable information that lets you tweak your life accordingly.
In an extreme example, maybe you’re in the wrong job and it’s time to find a new one. Or maybe you simply need to do a better job of advocating for yourself at work.
These ideas are rooted in mindfulness, or the ability to pay attention to thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judging them. David’s work suggests that you don’t necessarily have to start a meditation practice to become more mindful (though that would probably help) — it’s more about learning to be generally open to whatever you’re thinking and feeling, all day long.
Ultimately, the goal is to be — rather than to be happy, which is somewhat freeing.
“Our contract with life is a contract that is brokered with fragility, and with sadness, and with anxiety. And if we’re going to authentically and meaningfully be in this world, we cannot focus on one dimension of life and expect that focusing on that dimension is going to then give us a well-rounded life.”
1. "This sounds like a story about Positive Psychology, which is a good thin..." In response to Reply # 0
I practice mindfulness and I have noticed over time feelings like irritation and frustration and anxiety don't have the hold over me like they once did. If I'm by myself, I can usually experience the emotion and fully feel the sensations and the triggers for the emotion, but not necessarily feel prompted to act on the emotions. Sometimes I can get underneath the actual emotion and tend to whatever unresolved emotional pain or disappointment or shock that's causing the emotion which is causing me problems in that moment.
Staying with your own truth in life situations will help you find your way.
Posted Nov 13, 2017
Can you be with the whole of your psyche?
Let it R.A.I.N.
When you're young, the territory of the psyche is like a vast estate, with rolling hills, forests and plains, swamps and meadows. So many things can be experienced, expressed, wanted, and loved.
But as life goes along, most people pull back from major parts of their psyche. Perhaps a swamp of sadness was painful, or fumes of toxic wishes were alarming, or jumping exuberantly in a meadow of joy irritated a parent into a scolding. Or maybe you saw someone else get in trouble for feeling, saying, or doing something and you resolved, consciously or unconsciously, to Stay Away From That Place Forever.
In whatever way it happens, most of us end up by mid-adulthood living in the gate house, venturing out a bit, but lacking much sense of the whole estate, the great endowment of the whole psyche. Emotions are shut down, energetic and erotic wellsprings of vitality are capped, deep longings are set aside, sub-personalities are shackled and silenced, old pain and troubles are buried, the roots of reactions - hurt, anger, feelings of inadequacy - are veiled so we can't get at them, and we live at odds with both Nature and our own nature.
Sure, the processes of the psyche need some regulation. Not all thoughts should be spoken, and not all desires should be acted upon! But if you suppress, disown, push away, recoil from, or deny major parts of yourself, then you feel cut off, alienated from yourself, lacking vital information about what is really going on inside, no longer at home in your own skin or your own mind - which feels bad, lowers effectiveness at home and work, fuels interpersonal issues, and contributes to health problems.
So what can we do? How can we reclaim, use, enjoy, and be at peace with our whole estate - without being overwhelmed by its occasional swamps and fumes?
This is where R.A.I.N. comes in.
R.A.I.N. is an acronym developed by Michelle McDonald, a senior mindfulness teacher, to summarize a powerful way to expand self-awareness. (I've adapted it a bit below, and any flaws in the adaptation are my own, not Michelle's.)
R = Recognize: Notice that you are experiencing something, such as irritation at the tone of voice used by your partner, child, or co-worker. Step back into observation rather than reaction. Without getting into story, simply name what is present, such as "annoyance," "thoughts of being mistreated," "body firing up," "hurt," "wanting to cry."
A = Accept (Allow): Acknowledge that your experience is what it is, even if it's unpleasant. Be with it without attempting to change it. Try to have self-compassion instead of self-criticism. Don't add to the difficulty by being hard on yourself.
I = Investigate (Inquire): Try to find an attitude of interest, curiosity, and openness. Not detached intellectual analysis but a gently engaged exploration, often with a sense of tenderness or friendliness toward what it finds. Open to other aspects of the experience, such as softer feelings of hurt under the brittle armor of anger. It's OK for your inquiry to be guided by a bit of insight into your own history and personality, but try to stay close to the raw experience and out of psychoanalyzing yourself.
N = Not-identify (Not-self): Have a feeling/thought/etc., instead of being it. Disentangle yourself from the various parts of the experience, knowing that they are small, fleeting aspects of the totality you are. See the streaming nature of sights, sounds, thoughts, and other contents of mind, arising and passing away due mainly to causes that have nothing to do with you, that are impersonal. Feel the contraction, stress, and pain that comes from claiming any part of this stream as "I," or "me," or "mine" - and sense the spaciousness and peace that comes when experiences simply flow.
* * *
R.A.I.N. and related practices of spacious awareness are fundamental to mental health, and always worth doing in their own right. Additionally, sometimes they alone enable painful or challenging contents of mind to dissipate and pass away.
But often it is not enough to simply be with the mind, even in as profound a way as R.A.I.N. Then we need to work with the mind, by reducing what's negative and increasing what's positive. (It's also necessary to work with the mind to build up the inner resources needed to be with it; being with and working with the mind are not at odds with each other as some say, but in fact support each other.)
And whatever ways we work with the garden of the mind - pulling weeds and planting flowers - will be more successful after it R.A.I.N.s.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books are available in 26 languages and include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has numerous audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, and NPR, and he offers the free Just One Thing newsletter with over 120,000 subscribers, plus the online Foundations of Well-Being program in positive neuroplasticity that anyone with financial need can do for free.
She's a Buddhist teacher but also is a psychologist. Her lectures (Dharma talks) weave in Buddhist practices with mindfulness techniques. If you're not Buddhist, that's fine. There ought to be enough substance to the lectures aside from the Buddhist anecdotes.
Focusing on what we want can be adaptive, but to what end?
Posted Jul 23, 2018
I recently visited a primary school and noticed an array of student assignments lining the school’s main hallway. Attracted by the bright colors and creative handwriting, I decided to take a closer look. What I saw was a collection of students’ answers to the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? I smiled as I read some of the kids’ responses—predictable ones, like doctor and astronaut, along with some surprises, like aeronautical engineer and toothpaste inventor. As much as I enjoyed seeing the fun stuff these kids came up with, I couldn’t help but feel a bit troubled by the whole thing. Of course, getting kids to think about what they want to be sparks creativity and imagination. It plants seeds of inspiration, inviting them to think about the future and consider what’s possible. But as a therapist who’s spent a lot of time working with disillusioned, distressed, and disappointed adults, I can’t help but see the other side of this well-intentioned thought exercise: It sets the tone for a life spent wishing and wanting.
Now, before you deem me cynical and stop reading, hear me out. As I mentioned before, I appreciate the value in thinking about what we want for the future. If we don’t give it any thought whatsoever, we end up aimless, with no clear direction for our lives. But at a certain point, the act of wanting can become damaging. Research in the field of Positive Psychology has demonstrated that the more we want, the more dissatisfied and unhappy we tend to be. And we don’t really need a bunch of fancy studies to tell us this is the case. If you’ve ever invested time or energy into wanting a bigger house, a better job, or a more compassionate spouse, you’ve felt the sting of not having those things now. Thinking about what we want naturally invites thoughts about what’s lacking—and this, of course, is an obvious downer.
Furthermore, since wishing and wanting tend to be future-focused, they pull us out of the present moment, robbing us of our ability to be satisfied with what is. If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you already know how vital present-moment awareness and satisfaction are to our overall wellbeing; so while wanting is natural and somewhat necessary for our lives, we have to be aware of this particular pitfall.
Another issue that occurs when we focus on what we want is that we fail to consider the many implications associated with getting it. The expression, "Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it" applies perfectly here. There’s a reason many lottery winners wind up depressed, broke, or suicidal. We might have a clear idea of what we want, but if we don’t consider how our lives will change when we get it, we could end up less happy than when we started. I once worked with a client who spent most of her professional life focused on retirement. She wanted to get there so badly, for so long, that it shaped her life and influenced many of her choices. When we started working together, it had been eight months since she retired, and she was completely miserable.
She explained to me that in all the years of rushing toward retirement, she never considered what her life would be like once she got there. With tears flowing, she said this about her experience: “It never occurred to me that once I got to this point in my life, my parents would be dead, I’d be too tired to do the traveling I’d put off until now, and I wouldn’t have any hobbies to keep my busy mind quiet. This is nothing at all like I thought it would be.” We can learn a great deal from the examples of people like my client, who suffer as a result of getting what they once wanted. If we aren’t careful, getting what we want could be a recipe for disaster.
Above all else, the biggest reason to be mindful of what we wish for is that we’re prone to believe we’ll be happier once we acquire what we desire. Social science research has proven that thinking this way is a setup, because the more we get, the more we want. We believe that getting what we wish for will be the answer to all of our problems, granting us lifelong joy and satisfaction. But happiness happens to be an inside job; without knowing how to cultivate it internally for ourselves, no amount of money or external rewards will allow us to experience or maintain it. Considering this and the other points of caution I mentioned earlier, it’s easy to wonder whether wishing and wanting is worth the risk. But let me assure you, there’s some good news here for those willing to take heed.
Despite the potential dangers associated with wanting, there is a way to utilize it in order to enrich our lives without suffering from all the unintended, messy side effects. First, and most importantly, we have to be clear that getting what we want is not a guaranteed solution to our problems. We aren’t going to reach some utopian state of bliss once our desires manifest; life just simply doesn’t work that way. Optimal wanting starts with generating this important awareness. If happiness is what we’re after—and most of the time, it is—we’re wise to focus on how we can cultivate it right here and now, before we’ve bought the yacht, backpacked through Europe, or married our one true love.
Life is always happening in the present moment, so it’s important for us to realize that while we wish, want, dream, and fantasize, our real lives are taking place. For me, there’s nothing more terrifying than the prospect of reaching the end of my life and realizing I missed out on all of it, because I was too busy thinking about what I wanted instead of appreciating what I had. Don’t let this happen to you. Set goals for your life and, by all means, get intentional about going after them. But know that everything you hope to feel when you get what you wish for is available to you right here, right now.