This may be the most often made statement in therapy – “I just want to be happy.” It’s amazing to me how often the person making this statement cannot answer the logical follow up question – “Well, what do you think would make you happy?” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think they necessarily have to have a full, complete, detailed plan, but some idea of what happiness would look like would be helpful. What started me thinking about this common issue was an article from the October 5, 2009 issue of Newsweek. In that issue, Julia Baird wrote an article entitled “Positively Downbeat: Sometimes happiness isn’t everything.” The basic gist of the article was that we spend so much time trying to reach this goal of “being happy” that we forget to enjoy the process. I think she has a point.
I’m sure that you, just like me, have received the relentless message from your parents, your friends, your siblings, even exes that “we just want you to be happy.” And for the most part, we find this message comforting. It expresses unconditional love, in that no matter what you are doing as long as you’re happy I’ll be supportive. However, it can also be used as a weapon when someone disagrees with your actions, i.e. “The only reason I’m telling you that your boyfriend/girlfriend/best friend is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad person is because I want you to be happy.” or “The only reason I’m discouraging you from pursuing your dream of being a chef/artist/psychologist/fill in the blank is because I want you to be happy.” Am I discrediting the intent behind these words – absolutely not. Am I questioning the impact they have on the people who receive them – you bet I am. Humans are innately social creatures. We make determinations about our lives based on the reactions that we receive from other people. If you are surrounded by healthy people, who are completely unselfish in their intents, and will always think of your well being first, that’s a great way to be. However, if even one person that you trust and depend on employs the “I just want you to be happy” excuse to stamp on your desires and dreams, then you have a problem. Done over a repeated amount of time, in many different situations, the message becomes “You will not be happy until you agree with me.” Which in turn leaves you unable to decide what happy is for you.
In addition to these messages that most of us have gotten since birth, we are also living in a society where positive thinking has become the gold standard. Books, talk show hosts, even morning DJs encourage people to think positive in situations that in truth deserve, if not outrage, at least frustration. We are encouraged to ignore the unfair, unjust events that happen in our lives, in the pursuit of happiness. Friends try to convince us that “everything happens for a reason” and “it will all turn out for the best.” In all honesty, I’ve probably said these things myself when at a complete loss for words in the face of a loved one’s pain. Now, I’m not endorsing that you dwell on every negative event that has ever happened in your life. I am, however, endorsing that you allow yourself to experience the emotions that come along with these hard events. When we attempt to block our emotions, we usually end up blocking anger, sadness, guilt, and shame. Unfortunately, we usually end up blocking happiness, joy, peace, and contentment too.
So, the next time someone tells you “I just want you to be happy,” remember that your happiness may not match their picture of happiness. Use the tragedies of your life to learn about your strengths. I’m not saying that happiness does not exist, just that the paths we are currently taking to get there may actually lead to depression related to not understanding ourselves, anxiety over our abilities to be happy, or guilt about our inability to be happy. On our way to happiness, we may be missing laughter, joy, hilarity, and moments of grace. Many of us would be able to agree that the Dali Lama is a model for happiness – the secret to his happiness and probably to ours, is an open heart and mind to what is happening in the moment. Rather than a continuous focus on some vague happiness in the future, become mindful of the happiness that is occurring now.