On Happiness

There was a time in my life when I would have defined happiness as the absence of sadness.  This is no longer true. Today, I know that real happiness is found in the bumpy landscape of life where sadness, anger, frustration, and fear have their place alongside joy, elation, gratitude, and humor.

It annoys the shit out of me when people reject anything that may be perceived as negative out of a belief that only positive thinking is allowed in the pursuit of happiness. I know people who apply the idea of the “power of positive thinking” extremely literally. They espouse a dogma requiring banishment of any unpleasant thoughts, worries, and fears. They send these things to some mental isolation chamber so they cannot interfere with the business at hand of BEING HAPPY. Conversations with these people often involve the idea that positive thoughts have some magical direct impact on physical outcomes. These conversations are characteristically accompanied by voices that are a little too high pitched in their frenzied assurance that “everything is WONDERFUL”. There are false forced smiles that say, “if I smile wide and long enough, happiness will be mine!”  This hyper-literal application of the concept that our thoughts define our realities (which I agree with, in some regards) is problematic.  (Note:  For a super witty and insightful take on this, check out Mark Manson’s mordant blog post on this topic – The Staggering Bullshit that is the Secret).

First, it assumes some kind of cosmic and irrational connection between a single person’s thoughts and what actually happens in the world. For example, one of my perma-grin-sporting friends a few years ago warned against discussing Ebola during an outbreak in Africa because thinking about it could lead to contracting it. To believe shit like that is to believe that there is a direct link between what is going on inside a single human cranium and what actually happens in the external world. This complete disregard for reality is at best silly, and at worst, dangerous.

Secondly, the disproportionate focus on thoughts and emotions seems detrimental to a person’s emotional health. To be truly happy and live a rich life, we have to maintain a sense of segregation between what we are thinking and feeling and what is actually happening. Regardless of how strongly we feel something, it is our behavior that determines what happens next. The “positive thinking” movement directs people to a state of unhealthy denial and abdication of responsibility for their actions by making actions subordinate to “thought energy”.

A couple of years ago I watched a friend during a major life transition piss away her life savings with abandon because she just knew her winning attitude would bring in more money and the universe would make sure things went her way. It did not. Major struggle ensued; armed only with a clear vision of the perfect life and zero practical problem solving skills, this friend’s life circumstances became increasingly troubled. I was “voted off the island” of her life for expressing that I thought her behavior was delusional. Admittedly, I could have been more compassionate in my delivery, and I regret the loss of that friendship. That said, it is hard to be compassionate in the face of willful self-destruction and denial, and even harder when that denial is wrapped up in the infuriating veil of false positivity.

We need to accept, if not embrace, discomfort and difficulty as much as luxury and laughter, or things become lopsided. I do believe that a generally optimistic attitude is instrumental in achieving authentic happiness – the kind that accounts for and actively accepts challenge and pain as part of being a complete human being. While I reject the idea that it is enough to just “think positive” and life will unfold accordingly, I believe that a generally optimistic outlook results in behaviors that support our desired outcomes. And, in embracing discomfort we can choose to see challenges as catalysts for growth, and our challenges can increase our compassion for our fellow humans.

I recognize that in the middle of something really heavy-duty and difficult, like a broken heart, mourning a death, a lost job, a physical injury or illness, that the mantra of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” sounds pollyanna and hollow. The fact remains that sometimes you have to experience pain and suffering, and it sucks.  A person in the throes of heartbreak has very little ability to see the good in the absolutely horrible feelings that are consuming them. This is a bit of an exercise in faith, but not in a deity or invisible energy in the universe. Enduring things which bring us to the brink of our ability to cope requires faith in self. It requires acceptance that the only way out of some things is to go through them. It requires that we give ourselves permission to think negative thoughts, look at them straight on, and do whatever we can to punch them in the face and keep on moving.

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