THE BLOG
06/04/2014 06:31 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2014

When the Journey to Happiness Stalls, Try Focusing on Meaning

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In college, I thought I could study my way to being perpetually happy. I figured I had all the prerequisites needed for a happy life: a supportive family, good friends, a good education and the world ahead of me. I read countless books on happiness, became a psychology major, practiced smiling 20 times per day and even wrote my senior thesis on Martin Seligman's work about "learned optimism," or how to see the glass as half full. Yet I found that the more I focused on trying to be happy, the more elusive it felt.

It appears I'm not alone. Recent psychology studies have suggested that if we doggedly try to focus on happiness, it can impede our ability to be happy! In their article "Can Seeking Happiness Make People Happy?" Mauss and colleagues contend that people who highly value happiness end up setting happiness standards that are difficult to achieve. [5] When they don't attain these high standards, they feel disappointed, "paradoxically decreasing their happiness the more they want it."

So where do we go from there? Two experiences during my residency training to become a psychiatrist profoundly helped me on my own journey. The first was becoming familiar with meditation, which enabled me to take pressure off my quest for perpetual happiness. And the second was asking myself a slightly different question than "how can I be happy" that steered my journey toward values and meaning.

Before I started to meditate, I thought I was failing every time I had an unpleasant thought, be it unhappiness, loneliness, anger, anxiety, or frustration. With meditation, I slowly learned that those feelings are part of the package of life. Instead of trying to push the feelings down only to have them pop up (often at unexpected and sometimes pretty inconvenient times) or develop self-sabotaging distractions to ease my troubles, I learned to just accept the unpleasant feelings -- to sit with them while they ebbed and flowed in my mind. The more I sat with feelings, the less threatening they felt. And I discovered I need not beat myself up every time a negative thought or feeling popped up. In other words, I stopped adding to my misery by judging myself when I felt miserable.

When I stopped asking myself, "How can I be happy?" an unexpected new question popped up, which was, "How can I be happy with myself?" It started with learning an unconventional technique to relieve emotional distress called the Emotional Freedom Technique. As part of this technique, my teacher asked me to repeat the self-statement, "Even though I have this pain, I deeply love and accept myself." I hesitated. Was that true? Did I "deeply love and accept myself?" I was embarrassed that with all the introspection I'd done, I hadn't asked myself that question before. And I was also disturbed that when I did answer it, my answer was a hesitant, "Umm... maybe?" It pushed me on my journey to figure out what I could do to make that self-statement feel truer to me. I began to figure out what I valued, so that when negative feelings came up, I could still work towards things that were meaningful and affirming for me.

There is a type of therapy I recently discovered that makes me feel like I might have re-invented the wheel with my two transformative experiences. It is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT encourages people to accept what is out of their personal control (such as depression, chronic pain, external events like economic downturns or disasters, etc.) and commit to taking actions that are in accordance with their central values. ACT assumes that even when people are experiencing a great deal of pain, there's an opportunity to find meaning and purpose. The therapy teaches people how to accept painful feelings that are out of their control using mindfulness (a meditative practice involving paying attention to our experience in the moment), and shows people that pain can sometimes help with crafting rich and meaningful lives.

In my work as a psychiatrist, I often focus on reducing or eliminating symptoms, such as those that come with depression and anxiety disorders. ACT, instead, aims to change a person's relationship with his or her thoughts and feelings so they are no longer seen as symptoms. In his book ACT Made Simple, for example, Russ Harris makes an analogy to a plant we might judge as an "ugly weed" in our garden that we just can't get rid of. If we view this plant as a menacing, ugly weed, we'll spend a lot of mental energy feeling upset, frustrated, maybe embarrassed about it, wishing it weren't there, etc. But if we view the plant as an unfortunate fact of life, common to the native environment, then we are free to not waste mental energy on it. This leaves us able to better focus on what we find meaningful.

Although ACT still has a limited research base, there is some evidence that it can be as effective in the treatment of depression as CBT; there is also evidence of its effectiveness in treating anxiety disorders and chronic pain. One proposed mechanism for the effectiveness of ACT is that it helps decrease what has been called "experiential avoidance." When we attempt to avoid negative thoughts and feelings, not only do we often fail, but we can actually come to feel greater anxiety and distress. By decreasing our experiential avoidance, we can feel a reduction in distress, and move more easily toward what we value in our lives.

So if you find yourself bogged down on your path to happiness, it may be time to pause and refocus. Instead of tormenting yourself with, "Why can't I be happy?" you could try to be present with all the feelings you're having at this very moment, good, bad, and ugly. And then use the mental energy you save to figure out what you value in life. One question that I particularly like is, "When I'm 80 years old, what do I want to look back and say about myself?"

It's a big question to ask. One thing I can now say for myself is, "Even though I was tired and a little achy, I still wrote that article about meaningfulness."

For more on ACT: http://contextualscience.org/act

References:

1. Churchill R. Third wave cognitive and behavioural therapies versus other psychological therapies for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2013, Issue 10. Art. No.: CD008704. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008704.pub2.

2. Forman EM, Herbert JD, Moitra E, Yoemans P, Geller PA. A randomized controlled effectiveness trial of acceptance and commitment therapy and cognitive therapy for anxiety and depression. Behav Modif 2007. 31: 772-799.

3. Harris, R. (2009) ACT Made Simple: An Easy-To-Read Primer on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

4. Hunot V, Moore THM, Caldwell DM, Furukawa TA, Davies P, Jones H, Honyashiki M, Chen P, Lewis G,

5. Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., & Savino, N. S. Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion 2011. 11: 807-815.

6. Seligman, M. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Vintage Books