Driving to my office this morning, I listened to some broadcast information, I found disturbing. A happiness guru was giving giving advice on how to be happy.
He started out with an example of a retail worker, who was not happy with her job, and went to detail how she could immediately begin experiencing happiness, simply by changing her perceptions. Listening further, he appeared to state that she would be able to experience happiness by practicing a number of cognitive exercises simply geared towards looking at her situation in a different light. The problem I had with his message was that the change in perceptions where not tied to any follow through actions.
That line of thinking is based on the old glass half full or half empty analogy. That is to say, that you can either see a half glass of water as either half full or half empty. The issue I have with messages like these is that they are based on half truths. It is true that your thoughts influence your level of happiness, however if you find yourself experiencing unhappiness, who is to say that your thoughts are wrong? Take again the glass half empty or half full analogy, in reality a glass of water at any level is either on it’s way to being emptied or filled. It all depends on what decisions you intend on following through on. Are you going to empty the glass or refill it? Perhaps both.
Let’s explore a concrete example using the story of the retail worker who is unhappy with her job. What if she does not earn enough wages to get her basic needs met? Yet she believes that there are no immediate opportunities she can pursue where she is generating sufficient income. Telling someone in this situation to think happy thoughts is deceitful and insulting. It reminds me of a high school English teacher I was working with, who stated, “thank God I don’t live in India”. As she said this, I couldn’t help but notice the gaping hole in her right worn tennis shoe. I am not one to be materialistic, but I decided that based on her statement, her daily appearance was not one of self imposed frugality but one of impoverishment. Further, her comparison of her current situation at the time, to her perception of life in India, was meant to generate feelings of happiness about her situation. Which amounted to nothing but a false positive.
Back to our fictional retailer, if I knew someone in that situation, I would immediately share with that person that her unhappiness made sense. Further I would share with her that her feelings of unhappiness was her brains’ way of informing her that her current line of employment isn’t working out. If so, what is a retailer to do? I would introduce the retailer to cognitive exercises meant for her to brainstorm realistic alternatives for generating income. From my experience, such a process usually leads the person to come face to face with her fears generated by unhealthy beliefs she developed during her early life experiences.
At this point the goal would be in assisting the retailer to discard her old unhealthy beliefs and adopt new beliefs that steer her in the direction of practicing the courage to pursue her passions. So it is just not enough to think happy thoughts, instead happy thoughts are generated by decisions we make and intend to follow through on in either pursuing meaningful change in our lives or continue practicing habits to maintain a meaningful and fulfilling life style we are already living.
In my opinion, the key to happiness is the practice of courage. I will write more on this on the next post.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a life coach.