In the wake of exploring the new field of positive psychology, which led to a book on how to be happy, I had a nagging thought in the back of my mind. It's encouraging that psychology has begun to focus on the dynamics of a healthy psyche rather than on neurosis and mental illness. Yet the whole premise that people want to be happy seems shaky. Going back as far as Aristotle it has been a basic tenet that human beings want to be happy, and the utilitarian school of philosophy from the 18th century went so far as to claim that each person tries to maximize his own happiness. This led to an objective "calculus of pleasure" that now seems overly optimistic. The fact is that people do all kinds of things to minimize their happiness. Victimized spouses remain in abusive marriages. Alcohol and other addictions ruin lives. Choices are made that lead to lingering shame, guilt, resentment, and sometimes total emotional shutdown. Why are we motivated to make ourselves unhappy?
Here are a few reasons that come to mind, not all of them obvious.
- Low self-image
- The appeal of martyrdom
- Inner conflict and confusion
- A belief that suffering is good for you
- Depression and anxiety
- Feeling trapped by circumstances
- Living with high stress
- Resistance to being healthy
These are powerful forces, and although billions of dollars are spent on drugs for treating depression and anxiety, it could be that the other causes of unhappiness are actually more powerful. I say that because we now know, after four decades of studying the messenger molecules sent by the brain to every cell in the body, that there is no line to be drawn between body and mind. Your cells feel every moment of stress that you experience, and at a subtler level persistent beliefs are enough to cause changes in the chemistry of cells. With that in mind, the first axiom of happiness should be "You will be as happy as you believe you deserve."
How happy do you believe you deserve to be? To answer that question, you must first learn to think psychologically. Happiness is never automatic. It depends upon a negotiation of the self with the self. That is, each person has contending forces within, some of which are destructive to happiness, some of which promote happiness. Consider how subtly the following beliefs contribute to long-term unhappiness, even though they might seem innocuous in the short run:
- I love to make others happy.
- I take care of everyone else before I take care of myself.
- It's my duty to take care of others.
- I don't want to be the center of attention.
- I like fading into the background. Others want the spotlight much more than I do.
- It's a sin to be selfish.
In one way or another, there's something good about each of these beliefs -- no one is advocating a society of selfish egotists who feel no duty toward anyone else, and the last thing I am talking about is not living up to one's family obligations. But taking care of your family while you feel miserable isn't the answer, either. Sadly, it turns out to be the answer that many people settle on, because their ability to cope with difficult situations is so limited that rather than moving into risky psychological territory, they choose to be passive, they go along to get along, they favor the status quo, and in the end their lives are ruled by inertia. All of this comes under the heading "resistance to being healthy," which can reach an extreme. Therapists are well aware that when a patient is really stuck, especially in neurosis, addictions, or obsessions, there is a real fear of getting well. When they encounter someone who is psychologically healthy, such patients don't want to be that way. To be healthy means having flexible boundaries, an open attitude to new things, lack of vigilance, and a love of spontaneity. These aren't appealing qualities if your own life is barely sutured together.
There are a hundred ways to describe unhappiness. It's more productive, when thinking about your own happiness, to see if you live the way real happiness dictates. By real happiness I mean the kind that cannot be taken away from you. That's the acid test for whether or not you deserve to be happy. Many people are unable to find happiness except through the approval and love of someone else. In an Indian scripture known as the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a husband is distributing his wealth among his wives, but one wife doesn't want money or jewels. She wants to know her husband's deepest wisdom. What he tells her is this: Everything we think will make us happy, including the most intimate love, is actually for love of the self. I can hear people crying out against this as pure solipsism, egotism, and selfishness. But the self in question is a spiritual concept. Whether you call it the higher self, the real self, or the core self, this is the "I" that finds its happiness purely in being here. Existence is enough to establish a base of calm, peace, quiet joy, and total security. The world feels safe when you feel safe, and likewise, the world will feel happy only after you secure inner happiness.
In the end, I approach all the psychological factors in unhappiness as symptoms of one cause: What makes us unhappy is the lack of spiritual knowledge. If we knew that we had a core self, a self whose happiness could never be taken away, wouldn't every person seek it out? I've always believed they would. We still have the obstacle of being afraid to be happy. People often repeat that it's dangerous to be too happy, on the premise that the higher you rise, the harder you fall. Society still needs therapists to deal with the mental obstacles and suffering that seem endemic in modern life. But you can't arrive at a goal without a vision, and if a person's vision is limited to gaining pleasure and avoiding pain, or not expecting too much out of life, or feeling that it is somehow good to suffer, happiness will be forever elusive. If it's important to you to be happy for the rest of your life, begin with a vision of happiness that is high enough to strive for, year after year. In my experience, the people who do that wind up being much happier than they ever supposed they could be.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more