Often times people come into therapy hoping to finally tackle issues like anxiety or depression. Clients have come into my office wishing for me to share my keys to “happiness.” Sometimes they are disappointed to find I actually don’t think happiness is a reasonable goal.
There is a lot of information, particularly in the positive psychology movement, about finding the keys to happiness. You can use affirmations and daily validations to help lift your mood. You can organize your life and change your behavior, all in an effort to secure this feeling of happiness.
There’s a lot of validity to those suggestions. Nonetheless, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to search for “happiness” to begin with.
Popular culture tells us happiness looks one specific way. What does happiness look like exactly? If you believe some advertising and commercials, happiness looks like a beautiful young woman with flowing blonde hair riding a bike in perfect, sunny weather. For others happiness looks like the jubilation we witness in our children’s faces as they open presents on Christmas morning.
If you don’t fit that mold of what happy looks like, you may feel like you’re failing. You might internalize that failure to mean something negative and dark about yourself. Somehow you must be inherently flawed and unable to feel happy. We easily forget that happiness is fleeting, not a constant state. The concept of “hedonic adaptation” helps explain this. Essentially the concept relates to how people adapt to new stimuli — whether good or bad — but always recentering to an emotional baseline. The famous study of lottery winners returning to their pre-winning emotional state is only one example of how chasing “happiness” can lead to frustration.
It’s important to remember that you’re not the one who is failing. It’s our culture that’s failing us. Because we have such a limited and rigid view of happiness that we all struggle to live up to, whenever we don’t fit this mold we find ourselves riddled with anxiety and struggling with despair. Happiness isn’t a fruitful goal at all.
I think we should be more focused on attaining peace.
Peace Above Happiness
Whereas happiness is a state of mind that exists moment by moment, I like to think of peace as a never-ending thread that can exist in your day-to-day life. When we feel peace, there is a sense of comfort and emotional security even when we are faced with difficult times.
Think about how hard it can be to try to be “happy” when you’re going through a divorce. How can you feel “happy” when you’ve recently lost a loved one to a serious illness? It’s common for those around us to push us to heal and be happier quicker than is reasonable.
Inner peace can give us a sense of acceptance no matter what comes our way. With inner peace, even if negative emotions pop up, we’ll be able to deal with them and power through.
Achieving a sense of peace requires both effort and time. One of the best ways I have found — and that I encourage my clients to use — is mindfulness. Mindfulness can not only reduce anxiety in the moment, but can also help produce an overall greater sense of inner peace and balance.
Mindfulness as a Key to Peace
Daily meditation or exercises like progressive muscle relaxation can be great tools in reducing your daily anxiety levels and preventing the impact of stressors on your day-to-day experience. Once these practices become routine, you may find yourself living more in the moment and enjoying life just a little bit more.
If you find yourself struggling with persistent feelings of anxiety and depression, I would recommend that you give yourself 10 minutes per day you can use to meditate, draw, create, or simply breathe.
Allowing yourself to have this quiet time for reflection can be the first step in achieving a sense of peace and emotional security that’s going to help you tackle life’s events as they come. You can also consider working with a therapist, who may have additional suggestions for finding peace and stability. They can act as a coach or advisor, while providing a useful sounding board during stressful times.