This week I started re-reading ‘The Happiness Trap’ by Russ Harris. I read it five years ago and it was fascinating to read again and see be reminded of the key points I had learnt from it on first reading. It starts by talking of how happiness, like all emotions, is temporary. It is not a permanent state, but we have been led to believe that if we are not happy all the time we are failing. The huge number of self-help books on the shelves support this belief that if we try a little harder or change something about ourselves then at last we will be happy all the time.
The Buddha taught that happiness is temporary and that one source of suffering is the desire to hold on to happiness and cling to it rather than enjoy it as a passing and transient experience, a part of the tapestry of life but not the only motif.
Russ Harris brings a modern twist to this by listing 4 myths around happiness. I’ll share them here as I found them really useful. He says that we can make ourselves feel like failures when we believe that it is some shortcoming on our part that is leading to us being unhappy rather than recognising that unhappiness is part of all people’s experience.
Myth 1: Happiness is the natural state for all human beings
We live in a world where we are told we are supposed to be happy. Advertising shows us happy people – when they have the products the advert promotes. Television often shows happy families and individuals and problems that have a neat solution. Films show a happy ending where all sorrow and disappointment are overcome. The reality for many is that 1 in 10 adults will attempt suicide and 1 in 5 will experience depression. Whilst there is a 30% probability that any individual may experience a psychiatric disorder in their life at some point. Add to this loneliness, work stress and relationship issues and we see that finding happiness is not a given. And yet, so many go through their life feeling that it is a sign of their own failure as a person that they do not feel fully happy all of the time. Which only leads to more unhappiness!
Myth 2: If you’re not happy you’re defective
Western society sees mental suffering as a weakness and abnormal. If we believe this myth when we have painful thoughts or feelings we will often criticise ourselves for being weak, stupid or a failure. Russ Harris goes into detail to explain that our mind has not evolved to be happy – but to survive. The brain is a ‘don’t get killed mechanism’ designed to ensure we pass on our DNA. It is not concerned with how happy we are but how well we survive, and as such if it makes our life unbearable by presenting worries, anxieties and calamities that never happen it doesn’t care – just so long as this has kept us out of danger. Seeing things like this it is little wonder our mind will get lost in thoughts that lead to psychological suffering. To shift this we need to learn how to train our mind so that this tendency to catastrophes does not take over.
Myth 3: To create a better life, we must get rid of negative feelings
As we watch adverts, or films with easy resolutions to complex emotional problems or listen to certain motivational speakers and self-help gurus we keep getting a message that all that matters is to feel “positive” and that to do this we must eliminate the “negative” feelings. If we really investigate the things that bring us joy we will see that within them are a range of feelings, not all of which are pleasant. A long term relationship will bring love and joy, but also disappointment and frustration. There is after all no such thing as a perfect partner and there will always at some point be an experience of our needs not being met. Likewise our perfect home will also have in it a seed of anxiety as we have to find the money for its upkeep or to repair damage.
Russ Harris says that if we believe this myth we are in big trouble – as it is almost impossible to create a better life if we are not prepared to have some uncomfortable feelings. If I believe this myth then when the man we I’m dating lets me down and I feel unpleasant emotions I will drop the relationship and move on, looking for the perfect man who will never make me feel anything uncomfortable. What matters is not creating a life where we never experience unpleasant emotions, but having the tools to handle such feelings when they inevitably arise.
Myth 4: You should be able to control what you think and feel
This has been the myth I lived much of my life by! As a teen I decided if I could control everything about me enough then I would stop suffering. It didn’t work! It only led to even deeper suffering as I tightened the control. Eventually the control was so tight there was nothing else that could happen but a nervous breakdown so that everything that had been held in and controlled could spill out.
If a self-help programme or meditation course tells you that you can find happiness by stopping the negative thoughts and filling your head instead with only positive thoughts – then it is caught in this myth. How many times have you tried to think only positive things? How often have you tried to push away the negative thoughts? Has it worked? Or did they only get louder.
As Jung says “what we resist persists, and what we fight we get more of”. Push away a negative thought, anger, sadness guilt, loneliness, or any other difficult emotion, without acknowledging, listening and brining kindness to it and it will only fight back and get stronger. Our minds took a hundred thousand years to evolve to be a ‘don’t get killed’ mechanism that is primed to look for danger and focus on risk. A few affirmations are not going to wipe out this evolutionary survival dynamic to be focused on danger. They may have a temporary effect, but will not get rid of negative thoughts over the long term.
How can we be happy?
Acceptance, patient forbearance and love.
My teacher would always say: “this is how it is”. Whatever happened, rather than getting lost in the story or fighting it or wishing it was otherwise, he would just say “this is how it is”. He would notice the worried mind and feel the urge to get rid of worry, and instead be the kind witness that sees worry as a temporary guest, a part of life.
The Guesthouse by the 13th century mystic Sufi poet Rumi gives a beautiful expression of this attitude:
For more details about the Happiness Trap click here