A Quick Trip Through Recent History
In the past few decades we've seen a plethora of books, articles, and speakers telling us to pursue happiness through mindfulness training and practices, or to not pursue it at all lest it slip quickly from our grasp; to count our blessings and be grateful; to face our fears; to meditate; to connect deeply with a few others (and interestingly, to connect more superficially but pleasantly with many others throughout our day); to serve others; to look out for number one; to shed toxic relationships; to confront those who have traumatized us; to forgive those who've mistreated us; to change our thinking and beliefs to be more positive and optimistic; to take long walks in nature; to take two minute cold showers (yes, there's evidence showing a correlation between increased happiness and consistent cold showers, though as with most of the above, causation has yet to be shown).
We've also been told to exercise, eat, and sleep well, and in one of the latest exhortations, to foster the proper bacteria in our guts. And this is mostly just recent advice. We've also got advice handed down throughout the ages from numerous cultures and philosophical and spiritual traditions.
What's a person to do? No matter if you decide to change by following any of the above advice, or simply put more or different effort into reaching your particular personal goals, there's one common denominator to all change efforts - FEAR.
That fear can range from concern to terror. It's part of your and all of our biological heritage to aid survival when uncertainty arises, keeping you sufficiently cautious to avoid social and physical dangers. Better safe than sorry is often our default position.
Fear and calculated risks are a part of nearly all important decisions we make, though we often don't recognize their influence or impact. Unfortuantely, it's all too often exagerated in our minds in order to keep us safe at the cost of our ability to develop skills that will increase our future safety and fulfillment.
We fear that doing something different than our habitual behaviors will waste our valuable time or make our lives even worse. While things may be bad now for us, they can always get worse if we make the wrong choice, we think, and there's some truth in that idea. Some like to consider fear as False Evidence Appearing Real, but fear can also be based on quite real dangers that could impact not only your happiness, but your very safety. It can be difficult to distinguish between the reality and the exaggeration of fear. It also can make the effort to change such a challenging conundrum.
All change efforts, even just thinking about making a change, puts you in contact with some form of fear because no change is guaranteed to bring you the results you want, and may in fact lead to conditions you decidedly don't want. Yet, so too can opting for the status quo. As the saying goes, "If you chose not to decide, you still have made a choice."
All choices to make a change that may increase your happiness involve the loss of some certainty and familiarity, a loss that often brings the very distress - the fear and anxiety and other associated painful emotional states - that you're looking to decrease or rid yourself of. We may be eager for change, but we're anxious about it, too.
The central paradox among happiness and the various factors that influence this feeling in all of its many shades is that in order to experience meaningful and consistent encounters with feelings of happiness/satisfaction/joy/peace of mind, you need to experience consistent levels of safety and security.
But in order to truly have and experience safety, security, and more frequent encounters with happiness and confidence in your emotional responses to life's challenges, you need to pursue opportunities and goals that can jeopardize the very safety, security, and happiness you seek. You can lose some or most of the good things you've got, triggering deep and often hidden fears.
Instead, we often try to avoid in the present the very discomfort necessary to grow, stretch, and develop the emotional and practical skills that help us avoid or minimize future pain by reaching or progressing toward deeply satisfying goals that bring further safety and security. Often that avoidance is a recipe for spiraling unhappiness.
What We Most Fear
The majority of our fears boil down to one ancient fear - the fear of rejection that could lead to abandonment. This fear often leads to a secondary seemingly self-protective fear - that we can't cope with any rejection or failure, or even disapproval. We often fear that any rejection by anyone will leave us exposed, vulnerable, and be proof of our inferiority. The potential loss of love, connection, or our reputations, even a potential very minor loss, can lead to overwhelming distress and avoidance of this possibility.
We are largely social beings and without someone to accept us, our happiness and our very lives are at greater risk, if not now, then sometime down the road. Without some level of acceptance from others, we don't feel safe in the short-run or secure in the long run. Researchers are finding clear evidence linking chronic loneliness - the lack of engaged social contact - to unhappiness, depression, and a shorter life span for many of us.
Fears of rejection and disapproval are something we don't want to admit to ourselves. We want to project ourselves as above those concerns, self-sufficient, strong, lest we be rejected for being weak and unacceptable. Or we choose to hide from too many others and too many of life's experiences so as not to "reveal" our less than perfect selves.
Though we made need the approval of at least a few others to thrive, we hardly need everyone's approval to experience happiness and satisfaction. It's a lesson we have to experience to believe, an experience that puts us in touch with our fear, usually the last thing we want to feel.
For most of us, this fear of disapproval and rejection shows up as self-doubt, lack of confidence, procrastination, as well as guilt, shame, anxiety, and depression. Too often these emotions paralyze us from pursuing our deepest values and desires.
What Do We Most Want and Why Is It So Challenging To Get?
We primarily want three things.
We've got a few tried and true pathways to these conditions handed down through our biological and cultural heritages, but each presents its own risks - or dangers - in our minds.
We're happier, safer and more secure with strong social connections, but we may get rejected, even abandoned, for our efforts at connecting.
We are more secure with a sense of status, influence, or power - a sense that we are respected/valued and rewarded among our peers for our ability to contribute to our communities - but we may fail in our efforts to gain the creative and practical skills or achievements needed to stay in good favor among others and keep valued resources flowing into our lives.
We're more secure with a loving partner who's in our corner through thick and thin, but we remain vulnerable to abandonment or the heartache of tragedy.
We're more secure when we live in a just society, but we risk the wrath or destruction of those in power who would choose to exploit us or seek vengeance for our justice efforts that affect their perceived power or sense of justice.
We're happier and more secure when we're fit and healthy, but our screens are so immediately rewarding and junk food is so convenient and tasty (and profitable for others who seek to take advantage of our short-term preferences in order to fulfill their own desires for resources that help bring more security and happiness).
Managing these conflicting tensions/priorities and their associated fears in order to stay both safe and content, now and in the future, determines the most important choices you'll make in life. Some of these choices are conscious. Many of them are out of our moment to moment awareness.
However, through skilled inquiry or the right experiences, those hidden choices to avoid fear and possible happiness inducing growth can be brought to the surface, giving you the chance to better own your choices. Then you'll have the opportunity to experience if your fears are real, exaggerated, or simply false. Those experiences are born from the desire to know and confront your fears. Experiencing that your fears are not fully accurate, or even decidedly false, changes your brain in ways that alter your emotional responses to the opportunities and challenges that promote happiness. Fear can become a trusted guide that can help you build your emotional and practical strengths, rather than an oppressive bully.
For some, tackling fear is best done gradually through challenging the assumptions behind those fears in a systematic way that builds resilience and altered emotional responses. For others, throwing themselves into their greatest fear can be the quickest and most dramatic way to change.
So yes, happiness is a choice - a choice you can rarely make happen right now - but a choice for things you can do now and consistently for the benefit of your future self. And it's a choice that's highly dependent on another deeper, more powerful, and often hidden choice - the choice to know and face your fears.
How will you manage the fears that block you from pursuing the things that will bring you increased states of happiness? Will you avoid those fears and their distressing effects such as nagging self-doubt, hoping they'll go away, or at least not get activated because good fortune smiles on you with the things that bring you happiness? Or will you choose to discover and face your fears, learn from them, and learn to reduce them in order to pursue the things that make you feel alive and fulfilled?
Author Anais Nin once wrote, "Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." Courage is not the absence of fear. It's the choice to move forward toward your goals and desires despite your fears. It's the choice to expand your skills, emotional and otherwise, to lead the life that you want. It's a choice that can lead to a reduction in fear and associated negative emotions, as well as increased happiness, confidence, and satisfaction. It's also a choice not without at least some real risk. What do you most want and what will you choose?
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Is Happiness a Choice?
And What Does Fear Have to Do With It?
This may seem like a strange question. How many push-ups can you do right now? Let's say you give it your all, every ounce of energy. Perhaps you can't do any, or maybe you can do 5, 15, 45, or more. Whatever the case, there's a limit to how many you can do at this very moment. You can't suddenly chose to do more than your limit and make it happen immediately, no matter how badly you want to. So what does this have to do with happiness and choice?
Allow me to keep going with the push-ups analogy just a bit more. While we can agree that right now there is a limit to how many you can do, does that mean you'll forever be stuck at that limit? No doubt that with sufficient motivation, the right plan, and a little luck to stay injury free, you can improve your push-up count. Doing more push-ups than you can do right now is not a choice, but it is a choice if you want to do more in the future.
So you'll need a little time, whether you want to improve by one or by 50. You'll also need that motivation I mentioned. Increasing your capacity to do anything - push-ups or exercise greater control over negative emotions to allow for increased happiness - entails at least some discomfort you must be sufficiently motivated to tolerate.
Many of us want to improve something about ourselves as quickly and easily as we can. If we could find a pill to make us instantly fit or consistently happy with no negative side-effects, most of us would take it in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, fitness or happiness in a pill probably isn't in our futures.
We want to banish anxiety, depression, guilt, loneliness as soon as we feel them and feel good now. These negative feelings are unpleasant in their own right, and often further worry us that our futures are dim if we can't get a handle on them. If an article or blog post doesn't give us a quick fix, we scan for something else to lift our spirits. An unnecessary trip to the fridge or that second glass of wine can seem the only sure thing when discouragement sets in. It's a short-term comfort that does little to serve our long-term interests for fitness, or happiness. (Not that there's anything wrong with those choices in moderation.)
We're clearly of at least two minds when it comes to any important change, physical or emotional, that will likely put our lives on a better path. While it seems that some individuals truly enjoy consistent hard work to get the results they want, they seem balanced by others who don't want to do any work at all. Most of us are in that middle ground, willing to do some unpleasant or uncomfortable work, but not too much.
Yet who's in control of that choice to work or not to work for something potentially valuable? Is it the you who goes to bed determined to get up and work out in the morning, or the same tired you who awakens and worries you risk injury or illness without that extra hour of sleep? Is it the you who resolves to meditate, practice gratitude, try for a better job or deeper relationships, or the same you who somehow finds yourself "too busy" with other priorities to remember to follow through on any of those endeavors to improve your happiness.
This is where the choice for happiness gets tricky. That choice is much like the choice for increased fitness and strength - you must choose something more than just increased fitness or strength. You must also chose to experience some level of discomfort in order to do the work that helps you reach or make progress toward your goal. Without that choice, you'll quickly lose motivation when difficulties set in. The failure to make this choice for discomfort is what makes New Year's resolutions so easy to make and so easy to break.
A part of you must want that discomfort, even while you recognize that another part of you wants ease and convenience. When motivated toward fitness, it's usually pretty obvious what discomfort you've got to chose. You've got to consistently do things that can be time consuming, unpleasant, even painful at times, if you really want to make progress. And it's that sense of progress from the choices for both strength and discomfort, as well as meeting eventual specific goals, that can keep you going when sleep, television, or the fridge beckon to take it easy.
The path is not so clear with happiness. What do you need to choose to to become happier and how much discomfort will it entail? There are literally dozens and dozens of studies linking many activities with increased happiness, though little to confirm that there is a direct causal relationship between the activities and happiness.
Steve Mackey is a cognitive-behavioral, exposure based, and motivational coherence-based mental health counselor and psychotherapist who offers individual counseling and psychotherapy services for issues related to anxiety, depression, fear, mood problems, low self-esteem, anger, habits, and relationship struggles for adults at 2020 Capitol Ave., Suite 5, Sacramento, CA 95811, serving the Sacramento, Elk Grove, Folsom, Roseville, Citrus Heights, Orangevale, Carmichael, Davis, and Galt communities. For more information contact 916 549-5772.
The information provided on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Visiting this website does not constitute a therapist-client relationship. Information found on the internet is not a substitute for individualized evaluation and treatment by a mental health professional. All written and visual materials are the exclusive copyright of Steve Mackey, © 2011-2016.
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