The Pursuit of Unhappiness
"All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness" The American Declaration of Independence “I just want to be happy”. The sentence we hear too often. In films, on social media, in our homes. Some would argue that happiness is the meaning of life. Everyone wants to be happy and everyone wants happiness for everyone else. However, this obsession with happiness in today’s society has resulted in some negative consequences. For example, Russ Harris' 'Happiness Trap' explains that always trying to be happy has been interpreted as avoidance of sadness at all counts, which then leads to repression and other unhelpful emotion regulation strategies. Society has also created what we understand as happiness. Whenever you ask someone, they all want the same things. Lots of money, fame and ‘success’. Once I get that, then I’ll be happy. Unfortunately, we have defined success as these very narrow and difficult set of attributes.
But when we bypass what society wants, we get a better understanding of what we actually want; Our values. Values represent the type of person we want to be. Most people want money because it gives them choice, power and respect. However, these three factors all represent the same thing: Positive evaluation by others. But if we look at the situation rationally, we realise that money would not improve our relationships with others. If anything, it makes things more complicated. If you made wads of cash, your level of generosity would be on the stand, and it also brings up levels of envy and jealousy among others. Laura Carstenson’s work at Stanford has demonstrated a common mechanism where people lose friends as they get older but their friendships improve with quality. With this improvement of quality comes improved mental health. But still, we suffer through to get the approval of as many people as we can. We spend our lives working in jobs we hate in hope we get another promotion so that we can get more money, so we can get more approval. It is cognitive dissonance (when you do something even though you think something else) that is played out everyday.
Happiness is a false promise because it is something that cannot be permanently held onto. This creates a negative sense of self whenever that happiness goes away. And we’re not going to be happy all of the time. Contemplate the funeral of a loved one. You don’t want to be happy in that situation. You want to be supportive, both to yourself and to others around you. And you then want another purpose to help you out of that sadness. It should also be noted that happiness would not exist without the baseline of sadness. We need both because that fluctuation between ups and downs over time. That is the beauty of life.
Stephen Hayes’ Acceptance and Commitment Therapy states that it is important that we can accept and sit with all emotions. The commitment part then refers to taking action towards our values, regardless of adversity because this pursuit is what gives us meaning. This is what will help you when our loved one dies. Not happiness. And this understanding of values is what will make us happier. When we are able to identify our values, we have guidance in how we make decisions. It actually becomes very simple, and it's a great way to guide teenagers. Whenever we make a decision, we should ask ourselves if it matches our values. When we make decisions that don't match our values, then we feel more uncomfortable emotions and when we make decisions that match our values, then we feel more comfortable emotions. Say I want to be a good person. Being rude to someone is breaking my values and that makes me feel uncomfortable emotions such as guilt and shame.
Please note that this isn't some md hippy propaganda that money isn't important. If all the famous people always say that money isn't important, then why don't they just give it all away! In the wise words of Kanye West, having money’s not everything but not having it is. Of course, I am not saying that you don’t need money. We need money to survive so don’t ignore it. Just don’t worship it, unless it is part of your values (I know many people who really enjoy money and that’s fine). And I get it, some people need to stay in that job they hate to support their families. If that is the case and it doesn’t affect you, then build you values outside of work. Just remember that money isn’t the only way to provide for your family. There’s also emotional support, love and positive affirmations. Your values might even be solely based on supporting your family. So you can work your goals and values around making sure you read your daughter a story before she goes to sleep, planning a football match on the weekend with your son, or booking a family holiday in the summer. Just don’t ignore your values.
And there will be people who are reading this thinking, I don’t know what my values are? In this case, ask yourself if money or time wasn’t an issue, what would you want to do? Sometimes, we don’t follow our values because we create reasons why we can’t do it. For example, I can’t compete in a sailing competition because I don’t have enough money for the equipment. This is where goals come into play. We need to set realistic and short term goals, so we can eventually meet our values. For example, I will set the goal of going out less on the weekend, which will then help me save up money so I can begin sailing lessons. And if you're still unsure what your values are, then get out and find what they are. They're not going to come to you as you hide in your room watching Netflix. Travel, read a book, meet new people. Find something or someone you're passionate about and this will help you discover your values. Victor Frankl was a Jewish psychiatrist that was victim to the atrocity that was the Nazi concentration camps. While he saw many of his fellow prisoners die in front of him, he believes that his values of being able to take care of his wife and educate others on the importance of meaning is what allowed him to survive three bleak years. While this physical health diminished, his mental health remained intact, because he followed his values. When you’re on your death bed, I hope you don't ask yourself if you were happy. I hope you will ask yourself if you made the right decisions. I hope you change your thinking to realising that the right direction is one towards your values and if you didn’t know your values, then it was the direction towards finding out your values. You were who you wanted to be. This to me, is the meaning of life. So don’t ignore them. Don’t steal someone elses. And don’t pursue happiness. Pursue meaning. Commit to your values regardless of difficulty and enjoy.
Your Sincerely, Motus Learning.