I recently attended a professional training seminar on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which, coupled with a recent article in the NY Times titled A New Gauge To See What’s Beyond Happiness, got me to thinking about the concept of happiness. It seems we live in a society that emphasizes happiness, but what does happiness really mean, and is it even something that is achievable on a long-term basis?
The NY Times article features the work of psychologist Martin Seligman, famous for founding the positive psychology movement and author of the 2002 book “Authentic Happiness”. Seligman now says that he regrets the title and that he’s refining his understanding of happiness. Now, under the rubric of positive psychology, Seligman is including concepts of positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishment instead of his previous focus on the concept of happiness. This constellation of states and circumstances should lead to what he’s now calling “well-being” instead of happiness.
Happiness implies smiles, good feelings, lightness, joy, giggles, rainbows, and hugs. Whose life can encompass such things at all times? Does yours? It further implies no negativity, no problems, no negative emotions, no worries, no losses, and no pain. Whose life is devoid of such things? Mine certainly isn’t.
The ACT training I attended emphasized the importance of accepting what is often referred to as the unpleasant aspects of ones life. For example, negative emotional states arise, sometimes as a product of a difficult life history, and sometimes because of present day circumstances. Regardless of where they come from, ACT teaches the importance of simply accepting that emotions come and go, and that the very act of trying to make them go away only serves to make them worse (for example, a favorite saying that I use with clients is “what you resist persists”). The same idea can be applied to unpleasant or negative thoughts.
When people come in to my office looking for “happiness”, what they are often asking for is to have a life without any negativity, no painful emotions, no difficult or challenging thoughts. This is entirely unrealistic. The first of the Four Noble Truth’s the Buddha taught was that “life is suffering”. To expect that we can live a life without pain or difficulty sets us up for disappointment and despair.
Instead, I believe that we can lead a life filled with contentment. Contentment isn’t about happiness. Contentment means that we’re ok with life just as it is, especially in those difficult moments, trusting that they will pass just like everything passes. Thoughts, feelings, circumstances come and go, like day and night, or like the seasons. They might not be pleasant when they’re here, but fighting what is inevitable and unavoidable only makes things worse. Being “contented with what is” is achievable because contentment isn’t dependent on the content of any given moment. So, yes, happiness is delightful when we’re happy, but as a life goal, it’s highly overrated because it is unachievable as a constant state. Better to shoot for contentment. May you find contentment in this very moment and for all time.