It’s early morning and Toothless is distressed.
“There are THREE mornings I have to go to school early. I don’t want to!” he tells me.
I’m not a morning person either – he has a sympathetic ear with me.
I sit beside him on the bed, “That makes perfect sense,” I tell him. “You’re only seven. Three mornings a week is big for anyone.” I explore with him each of his before-school commitments. “You can drop any or all of them. Which ones would you like to stop?”
His face is pained. “I love ALL of them!!” he implores, “I don’t want to miss out on ANY of them!”
“I get that.” I tell him, “If you give up one of those activities, you will feel HAPPY that you don’t have to go to school early, and you will feel DISAPPOINTED that you’re missing out. If you keep all of those activities, you will feel HAPPY that you’re doing things you love, and you will feel ANNOYED that you have to leave home early. Which way do you want to go?”
He’s facing a tough reality. There is no option where he gets to be just “happy”.
He chooses to keep all the activities – whilst repeating “I HATE having to get ready early!!”
“I know.” I say (hopefully compassionately), “Are you WILLING to have those feelings you don’t like in order to do the things that matter to you?”
He gets out of bed and starts getting ready.
I tell this story often in my therapy room. It encapsulates a truer story of emotions, rather than the one society sells us. I often ask people what it is they hope for their family, their children, themselves in coming to therapy. Almost without fail, there is some variation of “to be happy”. Our society presents “Happiness” as though there is some kind of dichotomy where we can be “happy” or we can feel “other emotions” – with happiness being the desired goal. But the reality is emotions are transient and do not occur in isolation – we can experience a kaleidoscope of any emotions at any given time.
I remember years ago the engagement parties for two couples in our network fell on the same evening. Both were fabulously happy events, we were delighted for both couples. We felt happiness that we had these wonderful friends who had found each other; and joy that we could go to their engagement parties. We also felt frustration that we couldn’t be in two places at one time; guilt that we left one early and arrived at the other late; and exhaustion at the end of the night (oh, and I was pregnant – so there were swollen ankles too). There was no option where we could just be “happy”.
Now I’m much older and my back isn’t what it used to be – I can do my physio exercises every day and be mostly pain free, or I can not do them and be mostly in pain. If I take the time to do my exercises, I miss out on other things I would prefer to do with that time. How do I solve this problem to ensure I am “happy” at all times?
Even in DISNEYLAND, “the happiest place on Earth” I wasn’t just “happy”. It was amazing. It met – no, it exceeded – my every expectation. But was I “happy” the whole time? There were moments of exhaustion, hunger, panic… And the entire, magical two days we spent there were also tinged at the very edges with sadness, because I knew that this special time with my young children would only happen this once and there was no way I could make it last forever.
Think about that – even our greatest moments of joy are tinged at the edges with sadness.
…and the reverse can also be true. Check out the beautiful illustration of this from Inside Out (spoiler alert):
Our constant pursuit of happiness has a darker side too. When we seek to keep our children “happy”, we race to solve their problems, soothe their frustrations, before they have a chance to develop their own coping and resiliency skills. In this process they instead learn a dangerous message – that they should actively avoid any emotion that isn’t “happy” – that if they feel anything else, it is somehow dangerous, wrong, or something faulty with themselves. Children begin to experience anxiety and fear at the very idea of experiencing anything other than “happiness” – do you see what an impossible loop that sets up? And so hard and heart-breaking for these parents who have only ever acted out of love and care for their most precious little people.
So I encourage you to give up on Happiness. At least, give it up as an attainable, permanent state, the way society sells it to us. When we make an emotion our end game rather than an information source, we are already setting ourselves up for failure. There is no option to just be “happy”.
Steven Hayes, co-creator of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, explains it this way:
“I think we’ve got the wrong model of happiness… Defined as a values based life of integrity and fidelity to yourself and what you most deeply want to stand for – THAT definition of happiness, man that’s the kind of life I want to live and I think that will support people, sustain people. But this cheap thrills version, this sort of ease definition, the feel good definition of happiness is an empty promise”
If we can give up on Happiness as our end game, we are free to explore something else: We can explore what it means to live with purpose; what it means to act in accordance with our values, the things that matter most to our heart; how to live a life that is rich and deeply fulfilling, even in moments of sadness and pain. That’s what I’m choosing. That’s what I’m aiming to model for my children. After all, there is no option to just be “happy”.
I’d love to hear your reflections 🙂
PS – Sorry it’s been a while. This is such a huge, important topic (and my current soapbox). This post just scratches a tiny bit of the surface – check out the Books and Resources page if you want to delve further.
I love that you are teaching Toothless how the different options will make him feel, so he can make a conscious choice. As a person who has used numbing tactics all my life to avoid “unhappy” feelings, I think being able to identify why he feels like he does and then actively choose one way or the other, even though there is no just-happy option, is such a valuable skill to learn.
I also think that the maelstrom of “if you’re not living blissful joy all the time, you’re doing it wrong” advice on the internet these days is so misleading and depressing. It’s like the “find your passion and do that” advice – I’ve tried that, but have come to agree with the people who advocate “if you do what you do and actively hone your craft, it will become your passion”. As Steven says “live your values and happiness will follow”!
Thank for another review-of-thoughts provoking article Tiffany. This is one of my favourite subjects. You have a wise parental approach (a real-person providing leadership to your children). Along the same lines that you used to encouraged your son, (but took me ~60 years to discover; I didn’t have your leadership) that I can stop doing “tasks” and instead do what I enjoy… by deciding to add joy to what I need do. When its my turn to cook (a disliked task for me), I wear earphones and “dance” to music. At least I don’t resent the time now. (The dog slinks away tho.)
A great read Tiff. Thank you 🙂
Love all you say about H,A,P,P,Y thanks Tiff Ive always thought the same since somebody who liked to get into everyone’s emotional knickers said to me ” Are you happy?” sad voice and I said “not one of my criteria for life!” But I tell you what I love being in my seventies and having white hair!