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Why We Sometimes Need to Feel Bad

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Smoking as a public health issue has been around for half a century. We have significantly reduced the rate of smoking, over half the US population is covered by laws which make it difficult to smoke in public, and 2 out of 3 Americans no longer allow smoking in their homes. So is there anything new and worthwhile to say and to do about smoking?

It may surprise, even amaze, you to learn that 1,000 people a day die in the US from smoking. Every three days that's the same number of people who died in our country on 9/11. This doesn't just happen to people we don't know. Many of us have lost, or will lose, a friend or family member to smoking. Both my parents were smokers and both lost their lives in middle age to it.

It may also surprise you to learn, if you are parents, that one out of four of your sons and daughters in high school and college are still smoking. Although they believe they won't still be smoking later in their twenties, most will be. In fact, many of these young smokers will become part of the heart-breaking statistics which show that smoking causes nearly a third of cancers and heart disease in the US.

Given the continuing magnitude of the smoking problem, it makes sense to take fresh and deeper looks at the smoking story. Here I want to look at smoking from the wider perspective of our contemporary approach to adulthood and happiness.

The capacity to bear unhappiness, to cope successfully with life's ups and downs, to tolerate frustration has been the theme of literature for centuries. But in our age, it has become an under-appreciated part of growing up and being an adult. Elizabeth Zetzel, a distinguished voice in psychoanalysis, published an essay in 1965 called "Depression and the Incapacity to Bear It." It explores how learning to bear unhappiness is a "prerequisite for optimal maturation." In other words, the ability to deal with disappointment, frustration and "other painful, though inevitable, experiences" is a crucial psychological achievement and life skill.

By contrast, we are now living in a culture that seems to take an opposite approach. In place of "10% inspiration, 90% perspiration" and "when the going gets tough, the tough get going" we have the culture of "easy" and the mythology of feeling good 24 hours a day seven days a week. In the advertising culture from the 1930's to the 1950's the idea was heavily promoted that to cope with modern stress you could improve your disposition by smoking a cigarette! Many people still believe president Obama should be left to smoke in peace because he has the most stressful job in the world! (See my Open Letter to President Obama on Smoking).

In today's advertising culture, cigarette smoking as the easy road to happiness has been replaced by sunny ads of happy-looking people being encouraged to head for the medicine cabinet. In this version of reality, you are not supposed to feel bad even if there is a reason for it! It is as if there is always a product or service available to "fix" you if you fall off the happiness train.

As a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist that means I have a tough sell: I need to convince people it is OK to feel bad at times. In fact, when you have a loss or a setback, if you don't feel bad, there may be something wrong with you. It is part of a normal feedback loop that gives you important information which can help you grow and learn from your hard-won experiences. I find this behavior in my work with smokers, when people are doing well they go smoke-free; then, when they encounter emotional discomfort or stress, they go back to smoking and blame the anxiety and emotional upheavals. The bad feelings will pass if you can learn to tolerate them; but if you smoke to smother them you can get stuck right back at square one. The belief that external substances, or "mood changers" such as alcohol or tobacco, are necessary to cope with, or get by in life is a seductive idea. Countering this idea is a central task of clinical work with addiction.

How do we help ourselves, or those in our lives, to develop the capacity to bear unhappiness? A classic example is when a family pet dies. Do you let your children experience the loss? Or do you buy a "brand new" pet before they can even feel sad, much less move past the experience? In trying to spare children unhappiness, perhaps we weaken their developing capacity to deal with life in the long term. Is it the parent's job to make the child happy in the short-term at all costs? I call this the "consumer" version of happiness. Or is it the parent's job to guide the child towards the means to create their own happiness? I call this the "producer" version of happiness.

The capacity to tolerate frustration is also part of the producer version of happiness. It helps the young person stick with tasks long enough to feel the satisfaction of accomplishing a worthy goal. Happiness happens along the road to doing something useful. Putting up with frustration is part of becoming a productive human being, capable of contributing to one's community. In other words, the capacity to work your way through a task when the going gets tough is an important prerequisite of becoming an adult.

When people experience real life struggles and are promised an "easy out," they can lose their confidence that they can make their way on their own when the going gets rough. An everyday example might be staying under the covers instead of going on that six mile overnight hike. When you take the "easy" road you also lose out on the positive feelings which come from accomplishing something which was hard for you. Perhaps it is high time we as a society take a more critical look at the 24/7 "happiness" model and ask the question: when is it less harmful, and perhaps even beneficial, to learn how to bear some of the inevitable discomforts of life?

Dr. Seidman is author of the new book Smoke-Free in 30 Days: The Pain-Free, Permanent Way to Quit with a foreward by Dr. Mehmet Oz (Fireside Trade Paperback Original, January 2010). Dr. Seidman first introduced his own program to stop smoking as a featured expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Dr. Oz early in 2008. For more details about the book go to www.danielfseidman.com

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