Behavioural psychologist Dr Adam Fraser on why the drive for happiness is having a detrimental impact on our wellbeing and mental health.
One of the biggest blocks to people becoming more fulfilled and evolved versions of themselves is their overwhelming and all-consuming desire to be happy.
We have become obsessed with avoiding all negative emotion and occupying a perpetual state of comfort.
I use the terms ‘happiness’, ‘comfort’ and ‘feeling good’ interchangeably to refer to our desire to avoid struggle.
The happiness movement has become massively dysfunctional for three reasons:
- We now think we need to be constantly happy
- We feel guilty about negative emotion
- We’re not evolving
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
We want happiness to be our constant state
People today expect to feel good all the time. When they don’t, they think something is wrong. The problem is happiness is an emotion, and emotions come and go.
They come in to do a job, which is to steer our behaviour in a certain direction, and then they leave. This is how we were designed and it’s a great system. But we have messed with the system. We picked one emotion – happiness – and decided this should be our constant state.
Happiness in itself has become the goal. Feeling a constant state of happiness, however, is physiologically and psychologically impossible.
Not only is this expectation of perpetual happiness delusional, it’s also fraught with disaster as we beat ourselves up about not experiencing enough happiness.
To get the most out of life you want to feel a whole range of different emotions, both positive and negative. The meaning of life is to experience as many things as possible and we should put emotions in that category as well.
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The importance of negative emotion
Feelings such as fear, jealousy, anger and disappointment are often a signal you have made a mistake and a correction is needed.
For example, if you have to do a very important task, the fear and anxiety you naturally feel will help you to focus and put in your best effort. In contrast, if you repress that anxiety and are overly optimistic about your chances of completing it you may bring a more careless approach to the task.
Even negative emotions have benefits
I use negative thinking and emotion to be a better dad. When I get home at the end of the day, I take a moment to think, ‘What if this was the last time I ever saw my family?’
It might seem morbid, and it probably is, however those negative thoughts and emotions put me in a headspace of gratitude and engagement, which improves my behaviour.
After reading my daughters bedtime stories and they ask me to climb up into their bunk beds and give them a cuddle for the third time that night, rather than thinking I’ve had a long day and I just want to go zone out, I think how many years I have left where my daughters ask me to climb into bed and give them a cuddle. These negative thoughts and emotions help me enjoy the moment and display better behaviours.
We feel guilty for experiencing and expressing negative emotion
Societal pressure to deny our negative emotional state can leave us feeling ungrateful for all the great things we have. While you don’t want to be an annoying douchebag that complains about trivial things, it seems it’s no longer acceptable to be annoyed and frustrated anymore.
While travelling for work, my flight was delayed and I was frustrated that I wouldn’t make it home to have dinner with my family or read my girls a story before they fell asleep. Feeling alone and sad, I vented my frustration on Facebook. (You know how bad things have become when you turn to Facebook for comfort and validation.)
In response to my post one of my Facebook ‘friends’ commented: “I’m sure there’s far worse things that could happen to you mate #firstworldproblems.”
After replying that I hated that saying and “Why do we have to be positive about everything?”, my friend answered: “A friend of mine and her 2 kids said goodbye to her husband and their dad as he went to WA on a business trip. He died in the hotel the next morning. Perhaps I should have said #perspective.”
Why do we feel the need to tell people that they can’t feel an emotion because someone has it worse off? Is it really that damaging to be annoyed?
All too often we shame people for feeling negative emotion. This increases our feelings of guilt and believing we need to repress them, which means people stop expressing how they truly feel.
Rather than judgement and the, “You think that’s bad…” attitude, a far more healthy and helpful response is to display empathy.
When people share their feelings with others and are told to be more grateful because of their privilege, their feelings of guilt and sadness are only exacerbated. Soon they stop expressing what is going on for them and push those feelings deep down, which leads to all sorts of emotional dysfunction.
Seeking happiness stops us from evolving
The desire to feel good holds us back from doing the things that challenge us to evolve and grow.
Self-esteem and fulfilment comes from courageously tackling and evolving over the top of struggle and challenge. What we know about evolution and change is that it feels bad. It feels scary, unsettling and uncertain.
If we have happiness as our objective, when we go through change and experience uncomfortable emotions our natural reaction is to retreat from that change. As a result, we retreat back to old safe behaviours that bring back the happiness but do not result in us evolving and growing.
The constant desire to experience happiness is one of the biggest blocks to progress, perverting our relationship with discomfort, challenge and struggle.
This mindset greatly limits our evolution and development. A full and meaningful life will be fraught with uncomfortable emotions. If you are truly doing the clichéd thing of ‘sucking the marrow out of life’, schedule in dealing with a boatload of uncomfortable emotions.
The key here is to develop the self-awareness to understand when the desire for happiness is hooking you into behaviours that lead you away from evolution and growth.
A new lens to look at happiness
Rather than focusing on happiness, focus on fulfilment. Happiness should be the by-product of a life spent striving to grow and evolve.
Are you evolving as a person? Are you living aligned to your values? Are you contributing to something bigger than yourself? Are you being courageous? Do you stand for something? What are your relationships like? How do you express love and care for the people and world around you?
Our obsession with experiencing happiness has brainwashed us into thinking we must always have positive emotions and attitudes so we focus on doing tasks that leverage our strengths to be in a state of contentment.
This mindset stops us from getting in the trenches with struggle and challenge.
For far too many years, psychology only focused on pathology and dysfunction but now the pendulum has swung back excessively. We have to have a more measured approach to happiness and positive emotion.
Humans are complex creatures and, as a result, need a more complex approach to their psychological and emotional states, one that takes in the importance of fulfilment.
This is an edited extract from Strive, the new book by Dr Adam Fraser, published by Wiley.