We've all seen some version of this scene: the child at the playground, covered in ice cream, wearing a tiara. She's surrounded by fun toys, fawning parents and other happily screaming kids. Yet, although her world appears to be exactly as she'd want it, she is beside herself sobbing in utter distress. My point here isn't to illustrate the simple statement that happiness can't be bought or that spoiling your children is bad. What I'm suggesting is that most of us are not all that different from the little girl on the playground. Many of us are going about happiness all wrong.
Despite what we may believe, quite often, we are not really seeking our own happiness at all. Many of us don't know ourselves well enough to conceptualize what we actually want. We conform to the notions and ideals of our society, our family and other influences that can drown out our own point of view. We spend our lives repeating patterns and filling prescriptions from our past that don't serve us in the present. To varying degrees, we fail to differentiate ourselves, to separate from limiting outside influences and realize our unique value in the world around us. When these outside forces seep in and quietly overtake us, we wind up seeking someone else's idea of happiness.
The key to one's happiness is buried inside the process of recognizing and differentiating from these forces. Of course, there are things that have shaped us that are positive. There are traits we've taken on that strengthen us and enhance our sense of self. Yet, differentiation isn't about separating yourself from society or ridding yourself of positive social models. It is about peeling off the undesirable layers that shield us from achieving our unique destiny and living the life we desire.
There are four crucial steps to this process of differentiation developed by my father, psychologist Dr. Robert Firestone. I explain these steps in more detail in my blog, "Becoming Your Real Self," however to summarize they involve:
1. Separating from destructive attitudes that were directed toward us that we've internalized
2. Differentiating from negative traits of our parents and influential caretakers
3. Breaking free of the old defenses that we built to cope with negative childhood events
4. Developing our own value system and approach to life
There are many influences from our early environment that we internalize, repeat or adapt to. For example, imagine having a narcissistic parent who acted superior and domineering. Perhaps, she boasted about herself, while putting you down or disregarding you completely. Growing up, you may take on her point of view toward yourself. You will start to have mean thoughts or "critical inner voices" that tell you you're inferior or that you are insignificant and only take up space.
You may also run the risk of repeating the negative traits of your parent, in which case, you'll notice having your own thoughts or feelings of superiority or entitlement. Maybe you'll act out the same condescending, critical attitudes toward your children. Finally, if growing up with a narcissistic parent made you feel inadequate, perhaps your defense was to sidestep confrontation, to retreat into your shell or to avoid standing out. These adaptations may have made you feel safe in your household, but chances are, these same traits could be hurting you or holding you back as an adult.
These early influences on our life make the first three steps of differentiation important precursors to living a happy existence, one that reflects who we really want to be. Once we shed these layers, we are able to take the fourth step and ask ourselves who we truly are. What resonates with us and gives our life meaning? This final step is all about finding our happiness. What are some actions we can all take to uncover what we want from life? It may seem ironic to highlight general principles of happiness when I'm suggesting that the key to happiness is unique to each individual. However, in this process of differentiation, there are certain mental health principles everyone can adopt in order to better find their own sense of joy and fulfillment. These include:
1. Happiness doesn't come from filling our days with fun things. Studies show that the happiest people are those who seek meaning as opposed to just pleasure. Thrill-seeking and instant gratifications don't work, because they offer band aids and short-term highs that fail to fulfill us on a deeper level. When we lead a life that has particular meaning to us, we feel more satisfied and joyful.
2. Happiness involves transcendent goals. People are generally happier when they create goals that go beyond themselves. These individuals show care and concern for others and practice generosity. Studies show that people get more pleasure from giving than getting and that generosity can lead to longer, happier lives.
3. To seek happiness, we have to realize our personal power. It's important to consistently remind ourselves of the profound effect we alone have over our destiny. This means both dropping the baggage from our past and resisting any urge to play the victim. When we acknowledge our power, we have a much stronger sense of resilience and can better handle any hardships that arise. In fact, having a sense of power in your life has been found to be one of the key factors in being a resilient person.
4. Happiness involves maturity. Part of being a strong, differentiated self means avoiding playing out parental or childish roles in relation to others. We can't control others, only ourselves, so being parental toward those around us will lead to higher levels of dissatisfaction and keep us from focusing on changes we can make. On the flip side, being childish and allowing others to control us, again, undermines our power and potential.
5. Happiness comes with a price. In order to feel more joy, we must be willing to feel more of everything. We cannot selectively numb pain without also numbing ourselves to exhilaration, excitement and pleasure. The human condition is a painful one, and we must be willing to feel our sadness, our anger and our fears in order to live a vital and passionate existence.
6. Happiness means being willing to evolve. We are most alive when we expand and try new things. Think of a couple falling in love. They grow each other's worlds. They're open to new experiences, activities, emotions and friends. What happens when they fall into routine and start to impose restrictions on each other? Their worlds start to shrink. They stay in, make rules and lose their sense of independence, and even, attraction. Happiness means maintaining your interest in new and lively choices that will keep the spark inside you alive.
When we look at these principles, we quickly realize that seeking happiness isn't selfish. When we are authentic, happy and fulfilled individuals, we are far better for the people around us and for society at large. We are better parents, better partners, better bosses, co-workers, friends and citizens. As we follow the path we carve for ourselves, we can expect old influences to seep in and critical inner voices to flood our heads. Yet, finding our happiness means silencing these demons and celebrating the unique and worthy human being that lies beneath. As author Howard Thurman said, ""Don't ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org