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?