“I Just Want to Feel Happy!”
In my therapy practice, many of my clients say, “I just want to feel happy.” I don’t blame them. I want the same thing. Both the world and my life has enough sad stuff in them that it’s not difficult to feel down once in a while.
There are a couple of points to keep in mind when asking for happiness. One is that happiness comes from within, not from someone else. A therapist or a trusted friend can work with you to get there, but can’t just reach out and give it to you. The second thing is that happiness is a byproduct of being a certain way (like being on a psychological quest) and doing certain things (like taking action in a way that promotes fulfilling that quest).
The Science of Happiness
Here are a few suggestions to start you on your quest for happiness. Read books like Flourish: A New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being by psychologist, Martin Seligman. Flourish is an update of another book Dr. Seligman wrote called Authentic Happiness. If you don’t read, watch his talks on Youtube.
Seligman identifies five psychological components of flourishing — Positive emotion (P), Engagement (E), good Relationships (R), Meaning and purpose in life (M), and Accomplishment (A). Together, these are called PERMA and Seligman proposes many applications of flourishing in education, public policy, and mental health and well-being. Click here to watch one of his talks.
Focusing on the positive isn’t trying to see the world with rose-coloured glasses. It isn’t imagining that life is “all good” all the time. Instead, positive psychology is about balancing the tendency – in a medicalized, fix-it society – to over-focus on our symptoms and ignore the positive aspects of life. Positive psychology is about looking at both our symptoms and the strengths we have within us.
One key to a contented life is that we take responsibility for our problems, because – if we try to push them away – they tend to creep back into our lives. If we push our negative experiences aside, we reinforce our tendency to avoid part of ourselves and, by doing so, we disallow ourselves from accessing all the energy at our disposal. Indeed, by rejecting the part of ourselves that contains negative experiences, we risk numbing ourselves to all our feelings and becoming less and less motivated. This is a recipe for depression, not happiness.
This is where mindfulness comes in, because the practice of intentionally opening ourselves to all of our inner thoughts and feelings can help us accept life as it is – in this moment and the next moment and the next.
No matter how happy we are, we will have problems. Mindfulness can help us to realize that each moment on our journey is to be savoured. We don’t want to come to the end of our life and realize we’ve missed the chance to appreciate it. In other words, both positive AND negative experiences are something we are gifted with as human beings. For more information about mindfulness, you could explore more about mindfulness by tracking the name Jon Kabat-Zinn or by clicking here.
Helpful Links: Uncovering your Strengths
Seligman offers a helpful questionnaire that I am using more and more in my counselling practice. The Values-In-Action questionnaire can help anybody identify what their character strengths are. Character strengths are things like compassion, leadership, having an eye for beauty and excellence, and so on. Highlighting these, alongside your problems, can help to balance the tendency to obsess about our problems – which, by the way, tends to make our problems worse, not better.
I’d strongly recommend checking out the VIA questionnaire to focus more on your positive emotions, how you engage in life, what your style of relating is, where you find meaning and purpose, and appreciating your accomplishments. Whether it’s in spite of or because of the problems you have faced, I know you have all of these positive aspects to your life.
Here are a couple of links to character strength questionnaires. There are two free surveys. One does charge for more complex reports, but there is a free report option available.