“Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”
–John Stuart Mill
“Hose off before you come in the house!”
My brother stood there, covered head to toe in mud, shirtless and wearing an awesome grin. For the last few hours, we had destroyed my parents’ manicured backyard. With sticks and odd tools (we really needed a shovel), we carved into the grass and dirt until we had a small, 12-foot long canal of sorts. Then, we poured unknown quantities of water down our makeshift river. It was the perfect project for an unscheduled summer day.
When I think back to this moment, it’s easy to be nostalgic. Here, my brother and I worked tirelessly on a project without meaning or reason — just childhood fun. We both smiled back and forth, and were filthy by the end of it. It was a freedom that children seem to have that adults relinquish.
But happiness was an elusive quality back then. I know that during my childhood and adolescence, I felt sad much of the time. There were various factors influencing my sadness, but I know that internally something was off, too. I was desperate to feel “normal.” I was desperate for others to like me. Really, I was desperate to feel happy. Yet, I couldn’t be more miserable.
The media message of happiness
In the worst of moods, hardest times, and deepest depressions, all I wanted was happiness. It’s frequently been the mantra coursing through me.
The world around us says we deserve to be happy. Growing up, I had the unfortunate inclination and timing to enjoy shows like FOX’s The O.C. and MTV’s Laguna Beach. They each flaunted an inconceivable wealth and privilege.
They seemed happy, even in their dramas. It was an endless party for them, and I wanted in. The mundane aspects of life didn’t exist in these shows. Abnormally long bathroom routines, cooking breakfast, writing for hours, and listening to a lecturer drone on weren’t the focus of these “teenagers’” lives. No, the excitement was in the sex, fashion, and material wealth.
These shows helped craft a warped sense of drive towards income and status. Unfortunately, each step towards those goals made me more miserable. Happiness was eluding me.
Suppression of thoughts only causes more
Stop thinking about polar bears.
Stop thinking about polar bears.
Stop thinking about polar bears.
Have you stopped thinking about polar bears?
Oftentimes, to find happiness, people attempt to suppress thoughts/feelings of sadness. For short periods, individuals are able to say, “I’m not going to let myself feel sad.” And it sort of works. We can temporarily tell ourselves not to be sad. It’s just that over time we suffer from this forced suppression and rejection of feelings.
Researchers have consistently found that thought suppression doesn’t work longer term. What happens is that people frequently endorse an ironic “rebound effect” in feelings of sadness and are less capable at suppression later on. In other words, by forcing our natural emotions down and rejecting them, we do more harm than good.
“I’m just trying to be happy”
The consequences of our culture messages and thought suppression may be grave for both your happiness and budget. Oftentimes, people try to spend their way to happiness. Popular media spoon feed us a message that we deserve to feel this way, and that it is accessible through purchases.
When we can’t buy our way to happiness because our budgets are too tight, we feel sadness and unease. When we can buy material goods that are supposed to provide us lasting happiness (at least, that’s what the commercials suggest), we often continue to feel sadness and unease.
The traditional methods of “trying” to find happiness seem stale. There’s something wretched and moldy and overgrown. We’ve let corporate messages persuade us into thinking that Lexuses will make us better people, and in turn — finally — happy. We’ve let Coca-Cola re-brand itself repeatedly — most recently taking on the Internet and cleaning it up. We’ve let alcohol and tobacco companies objectify women to sell us drug-addled euphoria.
And yet, we’re still not happy.
Going with the emotional flow
I propose we smash these corporate-defined messages of success, achievement, and happiness. They’re not working for you, are they? Do their messages of pre-scripted happiness help? Do you watch beautiful people enjoy expensive goods and feel better about yourself?
If the solution was in our media, thought suppression, and material goods, we’d be the happiest people on Earth. Unfortunately, these methods don’t make us happier and they goad us into spending more money. There must be a better way.
As someone with a psychological background and soon to become a counseling psychologist, I hesitate to “prescribe” any one solution. We all come from different backgrounds, environments, and experiences. One size does not fit all, but I do have some propositions.
1. Change the end goal
Frequently, the reasons for saving, making, and spending money are aimed at satisfaction and happiness. It sort of sounds like, “I’ll be happy when I’ve earned a million dollars.” In framing our futures in this light, we’ve locked up an emotion for a later date. Until certain levels of wealth and material worth are achieved, people with these goals and ideals will experience emptiness.
It requires a certain level of mental flexibility, but if we can change the end goal, there’s hope for a better moment-to-moment life. Society says we should always be happy, but what will you say? Change the end goal to something like mental wellness and a fuller life may follow.
2. Learn to accept all emotions
As a counselor, I understand that many people grow up hearing these messages: “Stop crying,” “Cheer up,” and “It’ll be better next time.” Each of these negates the very real feelings beyond happiness that people might be feeling. They lay the groundwork for a life that will soon be happy — if only you’d stop being “weak.”
Life is not good or bad — happy or sad. When it’s boring or sad, we tend to spend more for excitement and happiness. It’s a self-medicated response that’s learned through the mass consumption of a culture that proselytizes this value.
Life is good and bad. There are swings of emotional highs and lows, and sometimes it’s boring and dull. That’s the real normal. If we can accept and think, “I’m sad right now, and that’s okay. At some point I’ll be happy again, too,” we’ll be better able to save.
3. Question anything that purports to provide long-term happiness
Hershey’s candy bars and BMW M5s can make us feel better. Likely, most of us have felt the joy of buying a treat. There’s this immediate headrush of excitement — from yum to zoom. But however much we might want it to stick around, it fades away.
Buying stuff is a short-term solution to long-term emotions. Feeling dull or down? Take a hit and buy something. Your immediate, short-term response will be happiness.
Instead, stay with it, don’t immediately try to “fix” your feelings. No purchase will ever solidify and halt emotional change forever.
Let’s define a new normal, where we accept our own and each other’s emotions — whatever they may be. Let’s recognize that no emotion is permanent, and that buying stuff should never be the long-term fix. Let’s learn to embrace the thoughts that scare us, because they’re only that — thoughts.