Happiness or contentment? What should we strive for?

When I ask my clients what they want me to focus on in therapy, one of the most common things that I hear every day is “Help me feel happy or good again”. There was a time when as a psychologist I believed this was a very reasonable request, in fact something that my training told me was a very reasonable goal for a client to set. However, based on my many years of experience and knowledge of recent mindfulness based therapies, I have learnt that a life lived in the pursuit of feeling good or of happiness as society defines it, is often not lived in the service of our most deeply held values.

I remember meeting a model whom by society’s standards was beautiful, successful and wealthy, and yet happiness was far beyond her reach. She had believed that all this would give her happiness, but she was disturbed to realise when she got there, that in fact it didn’t. She was unable to find a partner as everyone perceived her as too beautiful and successful to date, and so she started look within and to question what would truly make her happy. She was living in a superficial world where judgement was commonplace; a world she really didn’t respect; a world that created an inner struggle based on incompatible values. She, like many clients had been swept away with the “feel goodism” tide that Western society had reinforced and in the process lost connection with what she truly wanted and how she really wanted to live her life. She was able to step back and realise that it was time to make a change; to strive for what she really wanted in her heart. She discovered that what she wanted was a different career indeed, as a teacher, a career that for her had depth and meaning; a life that would promise more than fleeting happiness, but contentment. She was frightened to let go of what she knew, but she felt compelled by her values to take the leap into the unknown.

In that moment while listening to her story, I wondered what it might be like if all the people I talk to who strive for the perfect body could live her life for a day. Perhaps they would recognise that both society and our minds trick us into believing that things like being thin, having a job with status, an amazing house, the latest car and money will result in happiness. Like many people I see, she had fallen into what Dr Russ Harris, leading author and Acceptance and Commitment (ACT)therapist, has aptly called the “Happiness Trap” and was doing everything possible to avoid discomfort, control her world, aim for short term goals of feeling good, while losing sight of what would lead to a more vital and fulfilling life. So, what would happen if we aimed for a rich meaningful life, while being willing to accept and work with the discomfort that comes with following that path? Often doing what is important or what matters is painful or at least creates a sense of vulnerability. Every time a performer gets on stage they face the discomfort that comes with making themselves vulnerable in order to follow their passion, but if they were to stop being willing to feel anxiety and vulnerability, they would never perform, and as a result live empty lives devoid of creativity. When a performer asks me to get rid of their anxiety, I remind them it is a critical part of the experience and that willingness to feel it and channel it is so important. Learning to sit with discomfort, notice and detach from the thoughts that don’t work for us, and take action on what we truly want in our life, allows us to develop the psychological flexibility to cope with almost anything. In my work I am increasingly noticing how quickly people can transform their lives through learning to be more present in the moment and acting in line with their values. Therapy provides people with a safe space to accept the emotions that are uncomfortable. Being willing to accept all emotions is a bit like closing our eyes, taking a step and hoping that our foot finds the ground. But when we do, it is amazing how our lives may transform…

For more information on ACT, visit www.thehappinesstrap.com or www.actmindfully.com.au

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