People who struggle with unhappiness want to experience the best of both worlds. To be fair, who doesn’t? However what sets unhappy people apart is that they have convinced themselves that they can actually pull it off with circumstances that simply aren’t feasible.
A new mother who still wants to go night clubbing every other night. The chronic smoker who is committed to not quitting. The college student who wants to graduate with a degree, but doesn’t study. The alcoholic husband and father who tries to balance drinking and parenting, and the list goes on.
On the surface, these people appear immature and ridiculously selfish in their obvious attempts to attain the best of both worlds. However the true reason for their selfish actions is fear. They have been rewarded for so long with detrimental behavior that the very thought of letting go of the detrimental behavior is frightening. These people have reached a point where they have attained an intellectual understanding regarding how detrimental their behaviors are, and they sincerely want to change, but they struggle to let go. So they have tricked themselves into believing that they can continue to engage in bad habits and some good habits and everything will work itself out.
Sadly people who find themselves in this predicament are fearful of letting go of detrimental habits, because they have become so attached to the rewards they received from the habit, even if they have reached the point of diminishing returns.
The second reason is instant gratification. A lot of people can relate to day dreaming, daydreaming about how wonderful their lives would be if certain things changed. Don’t get me wrong, daydreaming is an important aspect of the human experience, some might even argue that day dreaming is the mother of ideas. However, happiness does not lie in the finality, it can only be found in the process. When people daydream about ideas they can use to solve their problems, they have a tendency to become impatient and resistance towards making sacrifices related to miscellaneous inconveniences, sacrifices needed to be made in order to engage in the process of solving their problems.
This leads to an obsession with the end result, and without taking time to engage in a meaningful process, unhappy people tend to give up and overwhelm themselves with feelings of shame related to their failure to execute change.
Over Coming Fear
Once when I worked for an agency in Texas, a co worker pulled me to the side and asked me why I was so fearless. This question caught me by surprise, because I did not see myself as a fearless person, as a matter of fact I still don’t. How this question came about was that I was involved in a border line public dispute with the leadership of the agency. Some co workers had advised me to cease in my complaints and attempts to hold key members of leadership accountable for certain behaviors. They feared that I was on track to be fired. I on the other hand, fully expected to be fired, and was determined to be principled to the very end.
I did not see myself as fearless, I simply saw logic. The route the leadership was taking the agency was simply not sustainable, and by my estimation things would reach a boiling point in approximately three years. This was 2002, and when I brought up the issues to my co worker, she reminded me that she had children to fed. My response was to ask her what exactly, she wanted to teach her children about working for a corrupt leadership.
I never got fired from the agency, I simply resigned after I had found a new job, and last I checked, the agency no longer exists.
Fear is irrational, in life there are no safe places to hide. Life will continue to press us with the same challenges until we learn the lesson we need to learn. After that, it’s on to the next challenge.
My co worker was wrong, I am not fearless. I do experience fear, however I have learned to embrace my fears and use them as motivation to face my challenges. After all, if I hadn’t spoken to issues I had witnessed with this old agency, it would only have continued and I would have been transformed from eye witness to accomplice. Hence, my problems would have only gotten worse.
Running from your fears, is akin to running from your shadow.
Learning to Delay Gratification
Here’s the thing about happiness, you are not supposed to be happy all the time. I know- the statement you just read before this one, contradicts the title of this post. In reality what we truly seek is peace of mind. Now let’s face it, if the title of this post read “how to be at peace” most people have been conditioned to blow it off as a boring read.
On the flip side of things, we are not supposed to be constantly unhappy either. Our belief in not experiencing any measure of discomfort, leads to the myth that we should always be happy. When I work with clients who struggle in following through on needed commitments, the first thing I work on with them is helping them adopt a healthier belief about happiness.
The second step is through exposure therapy, I help people make reasonable sacrifices in their lives and gradually expose them to activities they need to engage in, which they have no desire to engage in. Through repeated exposure to this activity, I help clients come to terms with two things. The first being that the activity did not present as a detriment to their life, and the second being to bring clients to terms with how irrational their reasons for abstaining from this activity was in the first place.
As clients repeatedly engage in the needed activity they have been abstaining from, a new habit of delaying gratification is formed. Even when clients reach their goals, they report feeling more content with the sense of meaning and purpose they got from the process when compared with the end result.
In summary, happiness is brief and fleeting , peace of mind and contentment is really what we as human beings seek. Also giving into fear and buying into the myth of constant gratification promotes a constant and unhealthy mindset of unhappiness. Finally, fear can be embraced and over come and with guidance people can learn to delay gratification.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, agreements and disagreements to this post. Please be respectful with your comments.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC, a professional counseling private practice.