How the ‘Happiness’ Ideal Can Hurt Us. ~ Kathleen Dahlen

Via Kathleen Dahlen
on Apr 30, 2014
get elephant's newsletter

Mihajlo Stojanovski

Something I’ve been keenly aware of lately, though perhaps it’s the phenomenon of Attentional Bias in action, is an emergence from pop-culture and social media of the message to be happy—choose happy—promote happy.

Whether it’s the #100happydays campaign or the Pharrell song taking over airwaves, the pressure to be cheerful and contented at all times (or for at least 100 days in a row) seems dauntingly in-your-face.

As someone who spends an exorbitant amount of time awash in tides of emotion due to both my professional therapeutic work and personal growth practices, I feel worried about “happy.” I believe that it’s damaging to promote only a simplified, pared down emotion as superior or preferred over the almost endless multitude of affects that we humans get to experience.

In a country that’s already far too medicinally fortified against the fear of “unhappy”, I’m worried because I think “happy” is an unrealistic and unhealthy standard to perpetuate.

I see the promotion of continual happiness as no more potentially harmful to our wellbeing than a tendency to numb-out with technology, alcohol, relationships, food and so on to avoid really experiencing the depth of a difficult or unpleasant emotion, such as loneliness, or fear.

Striving for an expectation of blissful existence might set one up to feel not-good-enough, or like a failure; similar to how living the meta-experiences that apps like Instagram promote leaves one feeling, “I missed out.”

I wish I was happy in that way. ‘My’ happy doesn’t look quite as good.

Additionally, I feel protective of the clients I work with and the people I know for which, frankly, happiness is not an option right now. Hopefully, one day in the future, happiness will emerge for them as an indelible, polished pearl from the gritty, muddy tumbling of their lived experiences, but right now, it’s tucked away too remotely.

In this moment, it’s too unsafe/vulnerable/heartbreaking to let the happy out. Or, depression, addiction or grief is standing in the way of connecting to happiness. And that’s ok. That’s growth and life.

I’m all for choice; it’s a phenomenal way to bring autonomy and direction to a seemly directionless situation. It means taking responsibility for our situations and actions, and yes, even our feelings. I understand that choosing happiness shapes the way we intend to view a situation, a day, a life circumstance.

It’s realizing that where we set our sights and send our energy creates our experiences—and that’s all well and good and I not only believe it, I promote it. But can’t we choose—everything?

Can’t we choose sad and afraid and enraged, too? And as equally worthy of our curiosity and holding?

I’m also all for joy. I’m for wild, uncontainable laughter and reckless abandon and delight and bliss and fervent, ecstatic elation. But I’m also for despair, and melancholy, and outrage and disconnection and heartache.

I’m for becoming intimately acquainted with the “visitors” to our lives and, as Rumi wrote, welcoming and entertaining them all.

Perhaps a better aspiration than happy is for peace and authenticity in each moment.

Perhaps the practice I’d encourage is a delicate cradling of each experience, painful or delicious, and a keen interest in what it has to teach and share.

I like to believe that by sinking into the moment, or feeling, rather than posting-eating-pouring-hiding-tweeting, we see that feelings are so multilayered, and so changeable, that the feeling we thought we were afraid of isn’t the feeling that we’re having after all.

It’s something new, and maybe it’s beautiful or terrifying, but it’s yours.

And I hope that by welcoming all of these experiences into the bright tapestry of our being, we find something greater and more lasting than happiness. We find awakening.

Love elephant and want to go steady?

Sign up for our (curated) daily and weekly newsletters!

Apprentice Editor: Todd Otten

Photo: Pixoto: Deep Thoughts, Mihajlo Stojanovski


About Kathleen Dahlen

Kathleen Dahlen is a miscreant yogi, organic devotee, food pornographer, Intern Psychotherapist, Mindful Family Coach & Postpartum Doula in San Francisco, CA. She currently guides individuals of all ages through integrative depth therapy in private practice, and owns Mindful Family Coaching, which offers nurturing, support and education to women and growing families through the birth process and beyond.


5 Responses to “How the ‘Happiness’ Ideal Can Hurt Us. ~ Kathleen Dahlen”

  1. Adrienne Lisa says:

    Immanent and truthful ideas! In spite of this thrust of pressure towards optimism, I've come to believe that there's nothing wrong at all with having a full spectrum of human emotions and states of mind, but that it is a dangerous fault to impose black & white limitations on ourselves. Straining to erase the black (or dark) and selectively retain only the white (& light) moments, in order to conform, negates the colourful shades of being, making invisible intrinsic dynamics of living (and alive beings)!

  2. Anne says:

    Amen! Only in dealing with all of our emotions, and not labelling them as good or bad, desireable or unwanted could we possibly reach any state of so called happiness. How can we expect to feel alive, or feel anything when all we do is to numb ourselves away from all kinds of contrast in life.

  3. Ellen Lederman says:

    I loved this. I am going to have to subscribe/donate money to elephant if it's going to give me quality pieces like this. Thank you so much, Kathleen. I've been coming to similar conclusions on my own, but wasn't sure if it was healthy or if I had just given up. Your eloquence made me embrace these truths—and helped further the peace and awakening that meditation and yoga are giving me.

    Don't know if you have read these books, which come to similar conclusions about not striving for an artificial, unobtainable, manic type of happiness:

    Bright Sided by Ehrnereich:

    The Antidote by Burkemann

    Learning to Walk in the Dark—Taylor

  4. Sylvia says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I am also in a profession that deals with all of the delicious emotions, and appreciate each of them. However I don't feel that things like the Pharrell song that are "taking over airwaves" make me feel "the pressure to be cheerful and contented at all times" at all… any more than I feel the need to jump on the "down with the Clippers owner" bandwagon just because that's also filling the airwaves. I only see it as people enjoying the mirth and fun, and wanting to join in. In no way do I read into it any message that (a) everyone in the myriad posted videos is "always" happy, and (b) you, me, all of us must "always" be happy. However, it is a wonderful emotion and extremely important to share in a culture that has many more negatives filling our airwaves. I'm especially impressed with the Happy song videos from developing countries, where one least expects to find happiness, yet it prevails time and again. Every time I've watched one of the Happy song videos, I've smiled. It's just as okay to feel and share happiness as any other emotion. That being said, your message regarding the wonderfulness of embracing all emotions is equally important to share, so thank you for posting.

  5. Jamie Khoo says:

    Oh this is so important and so needs to be said. Thank you for writing this. I think so many of us go through life wanting to deny the bad feelings and denying or avoiding them just magnifies it all, doesn't it? I have felt and experienced this so many times. I really like Tal Ben-Shahar's book "Being Happy" which looks precisely at how we have this kind of perfect ideal of what it means to be happy and as we strive for it, we block out all the other experiences, which ends up just being really tiring and even more depressing in the long term.

    I'm really learning that, conversely, as we accept and sit in the negative emotions, we can release them more easily and simultaneously, it makes the happier, positive emotions come more easily too.

    Thank you for writing this xxx