The Pursuit of Happiness

Happy 2016!

I saw an ad for a course recently that promised “total happiness” as one of the course’s outcomes (along with “your best body and beyond” – and all in less than a month!). Isn’t that how New Year’s resolutions are made? Out of the pursuit of happiness?
I’ve realized in my years as a therapist that there is an underlying message in our culture in general – or perhaps it’s best to say in our society in general, because there really isn’t just one “American” culture – that if we’re doing this human thing right, we should be happy.  And apparently we should be happy all the time no matter what happens. I’m curious about how this came to be, but the main issue I have with this premise is that when people find themselves unhappy, there is often a presumption of failure. If I’m supposed to be happy (all the time) and I find that my life situation has caused sadness or despair or frustration or anger then it must mean that I’m failing at this thing called “being human.”
The reality is, that by virtue of landing in a human body (however you believe that happened), you were set up for a life experience that likely will include a wide range of emotions, of which happiness is only one. Even the most optimistic of souls (and I live with one of those souls) occasionally gets sad, disappointed, frustrated and even angry. Every human experiences physical and emotional pain. It’s part of the package. It’s not a sign of failure.
Now there is the definite possibility, especially if your life involved overwhelming trauma, that your human system might actually no longer remember how to recognize pleasure. If that’s the case then there is some work to be done. Pleasure is part of our birthright. It’s part of the package. For happiness to happen, in my opinion, the ability to experience that which pleases us is required. And through the wonders of neuroplasticity, human systems – even after years of deprivation – can learn to recognize pleasure.
So while happiness isn’t necessarily the goal, a complete lack of happiness is also an indication of a system that’s lost its ability to be resilient. (Not a failure, an indication of a need for more resiliency). Daniel Siegel describes “integration” as the healthiest human state. Peter Levine discusses being in a state of flow. Either way, we are able to have the capacity to experience the range of life’s experiences, to be present for life and make some choices about how we want to respond, rather than going into reactivity. (And really, even reactivity is part of the package!) When we are in an integrated state of flow we are able to allow life to happen. We can be with ourselves, and others, as we are – happy, sad, lonely, joyful, disappointed, angry. We don’t have to get stuck in any one of these. Isn’t that a worthier pursuit than happiness?

A Spot of Sunshine

I was driving up McCormick Blvd yesterday afternoon and like so many other days in Chicago it was overcast for the 2nd or 3rd day in a row.  Suddenly there appeared a spot of sunlight over the street, which stayed long enough for us to drive through it.  It felt like such a treat – a spot of sunlight on a cloudy day – and if I hadn’t been paying attention, we would have missed it altogether.   How often is life like that?  When things seem bleak, can we pay attention and take pleasure in those little spots of sunshine?  I like to call those little miracles – like not being able to find my keys and then having a sudden intuition or looking in just the right direction to see them in an otherwise hidden spot, or coming to an intersection to make a turn and having someone stop right away to let me in.  I try to notice and give thanks for these little blessings and then they begin to add up, giving the impression that my life is full of blessings – and it is – except if I wasn’t paying attention to these “little” things, I probably wouldn’t notice how many there are! I’m convinced that the more you notice the more there are – kindof like positive reinforcement to the Universe :-).

Eventually the sun broke through the clouds and today is a gorgeously sunny day here in Chi.  As we celebrate the sun I also send out prayers for those in Japan that their recovery from the devastation will be swift and certain. My heart aches in compassion for their suffering and at the same time I am grateful to be safe, and dry and warm.