THE BLOG

The Trouble With Happiness

10/10/2012 06:08 pm ET | Updated Dec 10, 2012

The trouble with happiness, as I see it, has to do with happiness as a goal whose urgency of achievement can overwhelm shades of feeling that are necessary for growth. We have heard much from neuroscience lately on the fact that we as human beings are wired for attachment. And now there are newer movements in psychotherapy to train children to think before they act, and how to act so they can be more effective and happier. This tone that you might sense has nothing to do with neuroscience, but rather the sense the mental health practitioners and our culture as a whole discounted long ago magnificent findings of psychologists and anthropologists having to do with raising healthy children with empathy and warmth.

We risk, here, falling into what I see as a terrible habit of judging a book by its cover, as in judging a state of mind by behavior. Sometimes nothing could be further from the truth in that we have seen and heard of cases of people who acted happiest before committing suicide, or who acted content and who conformed before committing some horrendous crime. But on a day-to-day basis, without worrying immediately about the worst possibility, I'm thinking more about certain episodes of sound developmental health that involve temporary periods of depression, distress, anger and general unhappiness.

The easiest example for me that merits our attention is a developmentally "organic" disappointment that emerges when we realize that we cannot have everything we want (okay, fair enough, some people never learn this one). It marks the beginning of getting to know that reality disappoints as well as provides contentment or rewards. That is the easier part of a phase that for many comes after they get ready to give up the inner convictions of being responsible as children for the happiness of significant adults. When children are blamed for every disappointment or limit that has been set, or when they feel responsible for the break-up or the making up of their parents or caretakers, the giving up of that sense of responsibility is much more painful and full of mixed feelings.

Yes, it's true that it's sad for kids to feel responsible for their parents' trials and tribulations, but on the other hand therein lies a sense of power, that tempts and deludes us that maybe we didn't have the strength to make things better then -- whenever "then" is -- but we can do it now. We can do it even in surrogate form, we think, with a boyfriend, with our children, with our patients (this is a well-known occupational hazard), or with whomever. What is also crucial is that if we have success and become a factor in the happiness of others, we have to contend with the emptiness left in us. We, in this case, don't only want to make other people happy; we want to fill up the emptiness and loneliness and correct the assumption that our worth is/was dependent on our ability to save another.

So it is that when Jane felt, at age 10, that her talking her parents into marriage counseling saved their marriage and then she felt a high, she also caved somewhat when they tried to help her see she wasn't responsible. She felt left out instead of relieved, at least at first. A well-meaning neighbor who listened to her woes told her she should be happy because she had so helped her parents, and that if she thought of good things for five minutes a day she might become happy. In truth, Jane's upset was a "necessary loss" because as her parents were able to see that they had argued so much in front of her that she, as an only child, was kind of given the job of being the audience and trying to solve their problems. Had things gone better for her sooner, she might have had the strength to have the boundary that might help her declare, "Geez, you guys, I am the kid, so solve those issues," but in her home and within her sensitive temperament, this hadn't been the case.

This didn't become a long-term therapy case. In fact, the biggest gift given to the family, including Jane, seemed to be the right not to be happy for awhile. The permission was to work at, work through the disappointment. In the process, she was helped to claim her right to be angry as well, for the expectations imposed, and for the lie (by implication) that turning her parents' marriage around was all her doing or her job or would bring her her own sense of self.

This is the kind of issue that occurs in life frequently, since our emotions aren't always simple, nor are our thoughts. If we take on happiness as the new quick fix, we may forget about depth, and delving, and reflecting, and -- yes -- development. We need to get to know ourselves and each other, not from a narrative invented by someone that can change us from head to toe, but from a more complex and complete process that involves the fact of our having different layers.

Am I making happiness seem like a bad thing? I'm sorry in advance. It's not that, really, but rather a tendency I see far and wide to be quick to judge the debater by the dramatic pauses and smiles, and our kids for the forecasting we do about their success -- or failure -- in 20 years. It's about our tendency to hurry up and skip over the surprises and complications that make life much more interesting, not to mention so much more honest.

For more by Carol Smaldino, click here.

For more on happiness, click here.