“The only thing that holds true happiness is that moment when you are in it. Nothing can be controlled.” Eliza Doolittle
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Carl Jung
The eternal question, what is happiness and where does it come from? Like the fountain of youth, we all seek it but what is it? We hear the song “Don’t worry, be happy” and wouldn’t it be lovely if every time we had a difficulty, we could just switch it off and in its place, voila, happiness would appear? Sure, externals matter, loving relationships, great houses, cars, planes, travel, it’s all great. It’s just that the road to happiness doesn’t begin or end there. We experience watch or hear about people getting high on spirituality, religion, Ayahuasca, all manner of hallucinogens, booze, pot, oxy, coke, smack, and some even claim that it makes them happy or enlightened. If all it took was swallowing a pill, going to a class or reading a book, we would all possess the secret to true happiness. I would love that.
Our cultural fairytale chimes the ever so popular refrain, “If I could just get rich, I will be happy.” As our myth of wealth and happiness is spread before us in every conceivable way, what are we to believe? The alternate cliché from The Velveteen Rabbit is: “The most important things in life cannot be seen or touched.” Perhaps it’s a bit of both because money and external beauty still matters. Children can bring great joy, but statistics from a recent article in Psychology Today states that “Initial work suggested that child-rearing exacts a toll on parental happiness.” Many of the rich and famous are notoriously unhappy amidst their glorious trappings. Yet we see ads and videos of people who seem to have it all and we want that life. It looks a lot like happiness.
Even amongst the healthiest and richest of us, happiness is fleeting at best. Sonja Lyubomirsky elaborates, describing happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” Happiness can also be described as the exhaust from activity. Contentment would seem more accessible but still not easy. People tend to simplify happiness and consider it to be about eating the right foods, taking the right supplements, exercising, meditating and being grateful. That may be enough for some people but for those who have experienced trauma, it may not do the trick. Not that there is anything at all wrong with eating right and meditating, it’s all good. It’s just that a piece of the truth may not be the whole truth for many of us. Simple happiness is actually a very complex task.
Why does happiness seem so elusive in our daily lives? To understand the roots of happiness we must go back to the beginning. This is a time where things are happening to us or not so we can naturally progress through the stages of development to reach well-being. We grow up in small family units with two or sometimes only one adult present. Not like our primitive past where every person in our tribe was accepted as a parent. Human infants are completely helpless so if Mom or Dad don’t feel like getting up to feed their screaming infant, it will for sure influence this little person, not that they could remember. Adding to this story, let’s propose that the neglect continues right through adolescence. Could this young person inevitably be happy? They would certainly experience self-esteem problems, sadness, and trust issues. There are many iterations of abusive behavior on the part of caretakers. Most young people have no way of understanding what they missed during childhood and how it affected them, no matter what they may possess in the outside world. This inner struggle and its consequences persist right into adulthood.
In the aftermath of pain and trauma, we attempt to go out into the world and find love and intimacy. We are like babes in the woods with no actual experience. How would we know how to find it? Or what it was we are looking for? The same would be true of happiness. We find ourselves then in relationships where we are acting in the same way as our parents. We go with what we know. Couple issues are most illustrative of our family experience. Whatever went on in childhood will show up in our important personal relationships. If there was a lot of anger and screaming at home, it will reappear again in all-important relationships. If parents and even whole communities never spoke about feelings or solved problems, it would be near impossible to achieve this in adult relationships. Typically, couples come to my office in crisis. They are often blaming, shaming, screaming, criticizing and judging each other. They have no idea what is causing them to behave in this way. This would certainly impede the ability to find true happiness.
Truth is we live in two worlds, each one affecting the other and ultimately our ability to be happy. The external world is what we see before us but internally an alternative process may be churning out another narrative. Our outer world may look elegant, even perfect, but internally there can be a distinctly contradictory drama unfolding. Alice Miller states her classic book The Drama of The Gifted Child that “Whatever we push out of our own garden we find in the garden of others.”
Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, asserts that our brain is wired up create well-being and equilibrium and it will get there by any means possible. If we were wounded early on by neglect, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, caused either by a parent, family member or other person or persons’ our body remembers. With all these memories floating around inside it gets a bit difficult to be happy. We are affected by what was done to us. If someone pulls a gun and shoots us or even misses, we will be permanently changed by that event. So, all experience matters. Our responses to negative experiences may show up in the form of angry moods, anxiety, depression, fearfulness, introversion and a whole manner of things. Mostly, we don’t connect the dots. We just move on.
So, our mind is constantly shifting pain away from consciousness to produce well-being. It does this by creating defenses as it flips internal beliefs like feeling stupid to needing to be right, from inadequacy to arrogance, from feeling unlovable to a heroic loner, from feeling like a fraud to a “Know it all.” We feel bad so we act good. We feel stupid so we appear smart. People withdraw in fear, hide from the world, pretend to be happy, try to get others to approve of them and it’s all hidden within the self. These secret shame issues and their influence on our sense of reality are what makes happiness so complex and elusive.
There is no true happiness until there is healing. We must reconcile our true self with our original injuries. When we are wounded it draws us into ourselves to fix what feels broken. A self-consciousness that seeks to hide our internal sense of insufficiency. This internal depletion then creates a need to obtain our emotional supplies by seeking approval and an external source for internal well-being. This internal lack of self-esteem also creates a state of grief that for many seems unreachable and unchangeable except through an external source. At this point happiness is like a drug that drives us to be seen and adored, shielding us from an internal sense of worthlessness.
What must be done to create the possibility of contentment or even moments of true happiness? First, we must understand what made us the way we are. That process helps us to make a distinction between what happened to us and who we truly are. Secondly, to accept that we need other people both for emotional connection and to work with who is objective and knowledgeable. Thirdly, learn about what is true, about us, others and the world. Wisdom is available if we open ourselves to it.
Seeing into our inner world is like looking through a funhouse mirror. As we uncover what distorts our inner world, it enables us to find our true self and then wellbeing contentment, even happiness. To reveal our true nature, to pull back the veils can be painful at first, but ultimately healing and freeing. It brings us to a new place of understanding about what is real. The process of drawing an authentic internal map builds a model for knowing who we are and how to express that knowledge to the people we love. Once we can appreciate and know where our inner struggles come from, can we determine who we want to be? Inevitably we find that our worst fears are untrue. Well-being even happiness results from eliminating the pain and conflict that gets in the way of it. Happiness then appears from the joy of activity and love. Who knew?