Why can’t I just be happy? This question, or something like it, often comes up frequently during initial sessions with folks I work with. Typically I respond to this question…”Well, what does ‘happiness’ actually mean to you?” In a perfect world...what would that look like, how would you know you’ve reached “happiness?”
Constant happiness, anybody?
Not to burst bubbles - the reality is that we humans are not conditioned to live in a state of happiness at all times… though it may seem that way when looking at the lives of others. Now if we hung out with these “happy” people in different settings, we would likely notice that at times they too find themselves in a space of emotional “meh,” anxiety, sadness or fear. We are conditioned to perform in various environments in order to achieve or avoid certain outcomes. For example, Sara is outgoing, lively and smiling around the office, every day… All. The. Time. She may be hoping that her optimism and great people skills will eventually land her a promotion.
Keeping up the happiness
We also get comfortable with roles we believe we are expected to play. Maybe one day Sara had a rough morning and did allow herself to show up bummed out. Then Jon two cubicles down, continuously pestered her about why she wasn’t “being herself” that day. “What’s going on with you?” Others have now confirmed Sara’s identify as the office’s ‘perky, go-git-er,’ expecting her to show up that way.
The part we don’t see is that Sara, fully human, still has rough days. But, instead of exposing that at work, she goes home, cries with her cat, and downs a bottle-size “glass” of wine (you know the ones I’m talking about). The moral of the story is this: We see others as they think they should be seen, at the expense of not allowing them to show up as they really are.
First things first: survival
Ever considered why 24-7 happiness is not possible? If we look at this through an evolutionary lens, we can conclude that our primitive brain’s most critical goal is survival. We survive by accessing primary resources including food, shelter, water, and sex.* If you don’t accomplish those pursuits, you are screwed. Even if you lived on but were laissez-faire in your approach to survival, your genetic line will likely become lunch.
And here’s something else: Another aspect of survival involves belonging to a group and connecting with others.* Cause’ back then, flying solo didn’t mean strength and independence, it meant YOU DEAD. It meant you literally didn’t have someone to cover your back and it’s you against the saber tooth tiger. Ergo, humans are social creatures: we hunted and gathered together so we could share resources and survive.
Some things haven’t changed
The thing is, that drive-to-seek-resources instinct hasn’t gone away with time.* If anything, we’ve evolved to become more sensitive to threat; the threat just looks different in the modern world. Nowadays we are bombarded with messages that tell us we aren’t good enough the way we are - that we need to be better, buy more, go faster, or be forever alone and unhappy. It’s pretty hard to be happy when society tells us that happiness is only achievable with success and material goods. But even with success and stuff, happiness isn’t guaranteed. Consider all the tragic deaths of celebrities via suicide and overdose… even the people with the most access to resources don’t always reach the “happy” we think we need to find.
Challenging baseline happiness
So does all of this happiness crap just mean we’re modern-day screwed? Fortunately, the answer is no. The good news is, simply becoming aware and practicing certain skills can help us see happiness through a more attainable, realistic frame. We no longer need to pretend to be someone we’re not. We can have the flexibility to feel the ups and downs of our emotions, happiness or otherwise, and make choices that make for a meaningful life.
Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of therapy that tackles a lot of misconceptions about happiness. With practice, ACT helps to rewire our brains and experiences, guiding us to respond to positive and negative emotions in healthier ways.* I work with these concepts regularly and teach tools to help you be Gucci (Millennial phrase I guess… Urban Dictionary told me it means “good”. Last I checked that was just another kind of bag I can’t afford, but whatever). We can work together to figure out what’s really important to ya in your life and help you find your true, genuine “happy.”
*Borrowed from The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris (2007, 2008).
Abby Erickson is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor at People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond psychotherapy practice. She helps people with anxiety and social anxiety learn ways to better manage their angst. She also helps people struggling with low self-esteem and body image issues be comfortable in their own skin. When she’s not in the therapy room, Abby finds her moments of happiness from working out, reading, or hitting up an acoustic show with a glass of vino in hand.