April 30, 2014

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

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.

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Apprentice Editor: Todd Otten

Photo: Pixoto: Deep Thoughts, Mihajlo Stojanovski

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Kathleen Dahlen