Learning Points: Being happy isn’t a magic trick, it takes hard work

HAPPINESS can be such an elusive concept. What does it truly mean anyway? When everyone’s idea of happiness is unique to them. I regularly hear the same declaration in my clinic: ‘I just want to be happy.’

Learning Points: Being happy isn’t a magic trick, it takes hard work

HAPPINESS can be such an elusive concept. What does it truly mean anyway? When everyone’s idea of happiness is unique to them. I regularly hear the same declaration in my clinic: ‘I just want to be happy.’

Often clients seek out therapy because they come to realise that they are not happy in the life they are living and they need help. Happiness is big business too. There is a huge industry built around the pursuit of it, with many books and videos suggesting that it is as simple as deciding you want to be happy.

Like those abs books saying you can achieve absolute happiness in six minutes, well — so they say. But true happiness and contentment (like those abs) takes a bit more work than they’d have you believe. In a world where everything is quick and abbreviated, hearing you might have to work to bring happiness into your life may be unsettling, to say the least. While some people seem to find happiness easier than others, the reality is for most of us happiness is something we are going to have to work at. One of the greatest insights you gain in your life is understanding what makes you unhappy. I often meet men who launch out on a negative trajectory in their lives and then wonder why they are completely unhappy. They haven’t understood what makes them unhappy so when they get involved in a certain activity or relationship they are completely blind-sided when they feel deflated, guilty or melancholic because that activity has not yielded any real sense of self-worth or happiness. So, understanding what it is that makes you discontented or angry with yourself is crucial for your future happiness, because when you figure out what really makes you unhappy — avoid it like the plague. That will ensure future happiness.

Often people get involved in very negative behaviours because they are afraid of true happiness; they have come to believe they do not deserve it. So when they feel happiness is coming into their life they panic and do something to unhinge that sense of happiness. I hear it in my clinic ‘just when things were going so well, why did I go and do that and ruin everything?’. When a person’s formative years are marked by dysfunctionality they often seek to replicate those familiar negative feelings in their adult life by giving into destructive impulses and I meet them in therapy completely at a loss as to why they are caught in this pattern of behaviour and so profoundly unhappy. When we gain an insight into why we bring pain into our lives we can really help ameliorate those early damaging childhood experiences and work towards true happiness.

A question I ask clients in

when I’m having

a therapeutic conversation about happiness is ‘what does your happiness look like?’. This is generally met with pensive silence. We often labour under huge misapprehensions like, if I had more money I’d be happier, or if I had a better job, I’d be happy.

Of course these things can make us happy for a while but like those six-minute abs the happiness you get from external superficial objects is ephemeral.

For true happiness comes from within. Don’t look outside to help you feel better on the inside. Look within yourself. How can you achieve something or have a goal when you don’t know what it is you are striving for? For me, happiness comes from feeling connected to my family and friends. When I get lost in work or consumed by something I lose that connection and my happiness is diminished. So, knowing that is powerful because I can work to avoid those feelings.

Often, around middle age, we can come to view our life in deficits; I don’t have a car like my brother, or my neighbour’s house is bigger than mine . If we look for deficits, we will find them and they will consume us.

Nothing creates unhappiness more than comparing yourself to others. In the words of Theodore Roosevelt: ‘Comparison is the thief of joy’. Only looking within and gaining insight into what it is you want from life will help you achieve a sense of contentment. Not all of us can be the famous actor or genius scientist, most of us have to navigate the treadmill of life. And we tend to view other peoples lives as being perfect. Whereas, the reality is, the genius scientist and famous actor have to struggle to find happiness too. If we stop looking around for a moment and ask ourselves ‘what is it I truly want from life?, we might actually begin putting into place something that will bring about that outcome. Sitting there thinking about yourself in terms of being a victim of life, will make you utterly unhappy. I meet so many terrible stories in my work but equally I meet so many courageous, brave and happy people because they have the strength to face a challenge and not allow themselves be annihilated by circumstance. When we stop looking around and start to look within we truly open up the potential for happiness to come into our lives.

Richard Hogan is clinical director of therapyinstitute.ie, a school teacher, systemic family psychotherapist, and father of three. If you have a question, contact info@richardhogan.ie

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