It's the holiday season, and I am enjoying a mainly London break. The sun is shining, and it is a good time to reflect on what it is that makes us happy.
For me, right now, it is walking in my beloved Brockwell Park in Brixton. As a psychotherapist, I tell my clients that happiness is the purpose of life. But it is not possible - or helpful - to be happy all the time. For balance, we need to experience a range of emotions (including difficult ones that popular culture seems so adverse to). Happiness itself is also contingent on many factors, like our relations with others, good diet, our state of health, fitness and so on.
For those of us having a difficult time, it can be hard to recall what happiness is, even if we were happy yesterday. But clients of therapy are frequently surprised about how naturally happiness can flow, even for those who have had very challenging lives. A George Bernard Shaw once penned aptly, "Life is not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful." So, I can't promise you will always be happy. But for those of us who are currently struggling, the idea is to find ways to increase the number and length of our periods of delight.
So as I stroll in Brockwell Park, I have been thinking about some common traps that people fall into, and how they might step out of them. Apart from all the things you could do in the real world to increase happiness (e.g. do more exercise or join a social club to meet new people), many times our ingrained ideas are holding us back. While you may recognize these three snags in yourself, you might be more surprised by the suggested approaches:
1. "What people think of you is none of your business" This is said by some therapists, but what does it mean? Most of us are not psychopaths and so we care how others view us. Many of us care too much. To the extent our behaviour largely revolves around trying to please others.
For example, celebrities often need approval like oxygen, and so Googling themselves is a really bad idea. We have all heard stories of Celebs going into meltdown when they read what their detractors say about them. This is an extreme example of how not to conduct your life. The trouble with seeking approving views is that you can end up living your life for other people. You effectively hand over sovereignty of yourself to someone who knows little about you, probably doesn't think twice about you, or worse, does not like you.
None of these people can have your best interests at heart. We would not consciously give control of our lives to disinterested or badly behaved people. So why do it? We are always going to get positive and negative reviews, and people will make up their minds about us anyway. And most of us can't afford a PR agency to change hearts and minds. You only have control over what you think of yourself. So it is far more helpful working on being less judgmental about yourself.
2. There is no failure. As some therapists will tell you, "there is no such thing as failure, only feedback." Bradley Cooper recently noted that while we see our favourite stars shining brightly on the screen, what we don't see behind the scenes are all the dozens of roles they have been - and continue to be - turned down for. This can be their private torment if they let it be, or a way honing their skills.
One trick is to begin to shift our understanding to the idea that life inevitably involves rejection. For instance, you may need to go through considerable rejection before you get a job, or the one that suits you better. Late capitalism requires a certain percentage of people to be unemployed, so why blame yourself? And similar to going on dates, even highly employable people may go on dozens of job interviews until the right one 'clicks.'
So, while you probably need to lick your wounds, can you try to find ways of not taking it so personally? And what valuable feedback can you gather to help you to improve your approach along the way? Or perhaps the uphill battle is telling you to try a direction that better suits who you are?
3. Once more, with feeling. I am struck by how feelings in the UK are frequently associated with self-indulgence or lack of reason. But more and more, academics are coming over to the idea that taking feelings into account is the basis for clear thinking and good living. Hence the rise of the emotional intelligence movement. Ignoring your feelings is like turning off the weather and anti-collision radar systems on a 747.
Not really that helpful. For those of us who open up to our feelings, they - like radar - turn out to be an important source of information. But often people don't like what they see when they first switch on their radar. All the anger, the hate - "I thought I was a good person!", you say. But difficult feelings are the common inheritance of humanity.
Feelings can never be right or wrong, nor besmirch your identity. But you also worry you will be swamped if you open up to your feelings. Some of us might need a therapist or support group to help us navigate our inner life. Others might turn to mindfulness. Regardless, becoming more aware and accepting of difficult feelings facilitates the pleasant ones too.
Self-help approaches to wellbeing are well known to work. Using self-help books is called bibliotherapy. These days, self-help books and computer programs are prescribed by GPs on the NHS. If some of the ideas discussed above resonate, why not explore self-help further?
The NHS recommends a whole range of books to help you overcome stress, anxiety and depression. It's cheap or free, and you don't have to talk to a real person to read a book (although your GP may have to prescribe a computerized program, and the NHS recommends their use be supervised by a therapist). And even if you do need to talk to someone, these days you can email it in instead.