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  • Writer's pictureStacy Taylor, LCSW

The Happiness Trap

Updated: Mar 1, 2019

A few months ago, I was having lunch with two other therapist friends, “Diane,” and “Marcy.” Diane confided that she didn’t feel as happy as she felt she should. She said that even though she likes her job, her partner, and living in the Bay Area, she wasn’t always happy. In Diane’s mind, everyone looked happier than her; consequently, she felt she was doing something wrong.

Marcy, a psychoanalytic therapist, wondered whether Diane had some deep issue that was getting in the way of her own happiness. Marcy advised Diane to see her therapist more often. “Perhaps there’s some area you haven’t explored yet about your childhood.”

My advice to Diane was different. I said to her, “It sounds like you are pressuring yourself to feel happy all of the time. Maybe that’s the real problem -- your unrealistic expectations. And I bet you’d be happier if you didn’t strive to be so happy!”

One of the ways we make ourselves miserable is by shaming ourselves for feeling a certain way. If we are sad, we talk ourselves out of our feelings. If we’re angry, we tell ourselves to chill out. We do to ourselves what a parent or teacher might have done to us when we were a child -- that is, talk ourselves out of our feelings.

Feelings are fluid; they change into something else when we leave them alone. But when we become upset about having a particular feeling, this emotion may hang around a lot longer.

Happiness comes and goes; unhappiness comes and goes. The same thing with other feelings: fear, anger, boredom, disappointment. The problems come in when we demand to feel joy all of the time. We may then, like Diane, criticize ourselves when we’re not happy. And human beings are not wired to be happy all of the time!

It’s been called “The Happiness Trap:” when we pressure ourselves to be so happy, that me make ourselves miserable. If you do this, there are ways to escape the happiness trap.

First and foremost, stop pressuring yourself to be happy most of the time. Develop a more realistic view of human emotions. As I stated, feelings come and they go. If you experience negative feelings, visualize them as waves in the ocean or clouds in the sky, that are ever changing and shifting.

One of the best mood pick-me-ups is spending time in nature, even briefly. I sometimes suggest that clients take a slow walk around the block after a session, and just look at the flowers, trees, birds, dogs, etc. There is so much in our world to attract our attention, if we just look!

If you aren’t as fulfilled as you would like to be, notice if there’s some interest that you’ve neglected. Perhaps you enjoy doing art, taking hikes, or cooking. If you’ve neglected your passion, then it’s understandable that you’re feeling more blah.

--Be aware of comparing yourself unfavorably to others. Part of the reason that Diane was so unhappy was that she was viewing everyone else as happier. Consequently, she felt that she was doing something wrong.

But difficulty is hardwired into this human realm. Everyone is unhappy some of the time -- even if he or she hides it with a smile.

(Please note: any reference to people, in this blog or any other blog, is a composite, not a real person.)

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