What Your Therapist Might Not Mention: How Assumptions about Happiness Cause Your Unhappiness

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I’m about to suggest you challenge your beliefs. Why? Because I’ll bet many of them aren’t working. Yes, you — the guy with the comb over!

Unless you are unlucky, you possess a level of convenience far greater than the kings and queens of history. I’m referring to indoor plumbing, TV, and computers. You have the possibility of air travel, superior medical care, and a better chance of a long life. Are you happier than they were?

Probably not.

Perhaps the route we plot to emotional well-being isn’t the best one.

  • Material wealth (aka, “The American Dream”) is not the road to happiness. Beyond income of $70,000 per year, money doesn’t generate much moment-to-moment improvement in your emotional state.
  • Most people don’t spend money wisely once their necessities are obtained. Research suggests you will achieve more well-being by purchasing experiences over things. Moreover, if you buy coffee for the guy behind you in line you’ll get more bliss than if you order a more expensive drink for yourself.
  • Comparisons to people alive today (in terms of wealth, status, and the things they own) probably matter more to you than comparisons to your ancestors. We are reminded far more than our forebears of our relative disadvantage next to the highly placed folks around us. People tend to compare “up” — to those better off  — more often than “down.” Thank radio, TV, and the Internet for highlighting your disadvantage. No such information sources existed 100 years ago.
  • Once you get something you want (an object, an accomplishment or a baby), the achievement will shortly lose its fascination. Like the kid at Christmas, your new toy soon moves to the shelf. (Warning: Don’t put your kid on a shelf!) The data demonstrate that growing children make parents less happy than they were before the stork delivered them. As to trophies, they become part of the background, not the foreground of your life. The thrill disappears and your level of happiness drops. This is called hedonic adaptation. We live on a hedonic treadmill and find it impossible to permanently race ahead and keep our joy elevated.
  • Rest — many of us want more — is a recipe for disaster. Too much time on our hands permits troubled thoughts to unsettle us.

Put those items together and you will recognize we aren’t very good at knowing what will make us happy. Worse yet, we believe we are entitled to happiness. I doubt that our grandparents believed this. Notions of “fairness” and “deserving” weren’t as common. The idea of being singled out for punishment by man or fate was unseemly to talk about. Being a “man” meant not complaining. Bad things happened. Mistakes were made. Rub some dirt on the wound and get back into the game.

I am not talking here about frank physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, but rather the common ups and downs of life including betrayal by friends, cheating of all kinds, the loss of jobs, non-devastating accidents and injuries, and even illness.

Today we challenge authority for inadequacies routinely accepted as a part of life 50 years ago. We complain about doctors and school teachers. Perfection, or close to it, is expected. Things are supposed to work, not break down. We blame someone else when they don’t perform as advertised. Since everything does eventually wear out — human and machine — we feel cheated. Somehow we’ve lost an understanding of the temporary nature of our creations, the imperfect nature of everything. We are unhappier for believing in permanence and near perfection as the natural state of things — assumptions about what life is supposed to be and won’t ever be.

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Technology has spoiled us. We don’t typically observe our loved ones suffer and die in our homes any more. They are elsewhere, caught in the miracle of medicine. In a world where 60 is the new 40, no one is expected to die at 50, the average life expectancy in the first decade of the last century. We’ve become aggrieved and petulant, demanding someone else make our lives better. We wait for perfect cures and perfect washing machines never requiring repair or replacement, with a guarantee of happiness because of them.

Humanity makes a crucial mistake. We misunderstand a common phrase: “the cost of living.” Ask 100 well-educated people for a definition and 99 will say, “the money a family needs to survive —  enough food and a decent place to live.”

Wrong.

The real cost of living consists of the bruises, injuries, and heartbreaks endured in any life; the disappointments and the wearing away. The need to replace things, change ideas, and say goodbye far too often. The betrayals and violations. The personal mistakes and poor choices. The Humpty Dumptyness of life. The regret, guilt, and anxiety. The tears. The fear of the future and the wish to “do over” the past. The decline and fall of things more personal than the Roman Empire.

I don’t think this is a dystopian view of life, but a realistic one. Much else makes life worth its toll: friendship, love, sports, and books. Or food, art, architecture, and the beauty of nature. How about kindness, music, and sex? Add victory, accomplishment, and learning — all of these are wonderful. Worth, to me, the cost of living and more.

Consider a suggestion: erase all your assumptions about how life is supposed to work, whatever advice your mom gave you, and take a second look. Decide for yourself whether your beliefs are working. Be an iconoclast. Break the graven images in your home and in your head. Start with a blank sheet of paper and challenge all you know. You might need to look for happiness in new attitudes, activities, goals, and people.

One other thing. Give life everything you have. Don’t play it safe in the hope of avoiding a knockout punch.

Life will impose its cost of living whether you take your best shot or not. You might as well get your money’s worth.

The second image comes from page 9 of Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty. It is sourced from Thornamentalist via Wikimedia Commons.

25 thoughts on “What Your Therapist Might Not Mention: How Assumptions about Happiness Cause Your Unhappiness

  1. Thanks, again, for the thoughtful post.
    “..erase all your assumptions about how life is supposed to work, whatever advice your mom gave you, and take a second look. Decide for yourself whether your beliefs are working.” There’s poignancy there when most of your life has been spent. It feels a little futile to rethink the assumptions that were ingrained in you as a child/young person. What’s lived is what’s lived. I’ve heard this before (quite possibly in a previous column of yours) and I find myself wondering just how a person can do that. What is the process of rethinking assumptions? They are too much a part of me to be separated from the core of me. Or maybe not.

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    • drgeraldstein

      Well, if you are 10 minutes from the end of things, perhaps the suggestion is unwise. With some amount of time, however, one might begin by listing values on paper. Add some thoughts about your attitude toward time, responsibility, diplomacy vs. directness, etc. And/or one could ask what behaviors are working and which ones aren’t. Or list situations that are difficult, what you’d like to do with adequate time/money, and so forth. Then take a look at the research on happiness (some information is within other posts listed at the bottom of the essay, as well as one that includes links to a variety of TED Talks: https://drgeraldstein.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/how-to-be-happy-information-you-can-use/). Of course, JT, you needn’t do any of these; nor does anyone else. Thanks for your thoughts.

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      • Yes, these were all valuable and thoughtful TED Talks (I watched them when I was reading through all your back columns over my spring break!). I think I am just in an interesting place. Having lived a responsible, nose to the grindstone, hard working life – all values instilled by the parents and, I must add, all values that paid off in concrete ways – I now wonder how it might have been different if I had added some play into the days . I certainly enjoyed my children and we had some wonderful family times (still do, even thought they are grown and gone) but life was always so serious underneath it all. I had to do the “right thing” , the “best choice”, the least riskiest option. My days were routine and responsible and, in hindsight, not very “alive” – hard to describe what I mean. It leaves me with a Peggy Lee response (“Is that all there is?”). And then I want to yell at myself to sit down and shut up and be grateful for all the positive things in my life. Complicated. But worth thinking about.
        “Give life everything you have. Don’t play it safe in the hope of avoiding a knockout punch.” Perhaps my task is to consider some ways I can still take some chances. I am not willing to risk losing my marriage (we each have worked hard at making that a loving team effort and it has not always been easy) and I left my job at the end of the school year b/c I was so burned out. I guess I did just stop playing it safe when I left the job (now that I think about it). I have been in public education for over 35 years and leaving was hard. Financially it is going to be tough but it will be an adventure. Maybe that’s my first risky behavior, the one that signals a new way of being? I’ll let you know how that goes!

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      • drgeraldstein

        Thanks for this, JT. I can identify with much of what you describe in terms of a “responsible” life trying to do right. I think if one is thoughtful and intelligent, as you clearly are, you can come up with 100 or more different lives you might have led. Indeed, while I’m personally happy and grateful for the one I’ve led thus far, there were doubtless others that could have been just as interesting and rewarding, but different. What I’m getting at are the limitations of any life. I don’t think being grateful for what you have and what you’ve done excludes the awareness I’m describing, nor the possibility of making some changes, as you seem to have initiated. Yes, please do let me know how it goes.

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  2. Humpty Dumpty . Fun analogy!

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  3. Thank you Dr Stein ! I really enjoyed
    reading your article. There is so much
    truth in your words. I am reminded of
    that song “I never promised you a rose
    garden. “There also is a movie with that title. Life is truely not a rose garden . Hopefully along our journey
    we find that we learn to live the cards
    we have been dealt and enjoy what is
    truely divine. The way we feel when we
    listen to a piece of music that moves us
    to tears. Watching someone win a gold medal is priceless. These are all things that don’t cost a dime I needed to be reminded of this today 🌹

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  4. Excellent! Thank you! I definitely needed a reminder.

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  5. Obviously you got my attention with the baby subject. I’m curious about the whole picture because there’s another set of ‘happiness’ data regarding ppl who wanted children but never went on to have any (not through successful treatment, adoption, opting “childfree” as the ultimate resolution) and those figures are not good: more depression, less life satisfaction reported than any other group, meaning parents or those who are “childfree by choice.”

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    • drgeraldstein

      I certainly don’t want to dismiss your pain or that of anyone who wants a child but is unable to have one. That said, there is no contradiction within these findings. Speaking globally, the data says that people who desire children (taken as a group) have a significant decline in their happiness for a long period after the birth of their child when compared to their pre-child level of happiness. This is one of those counterintuitive findings most of us have trouble with. Perhaps it speaks to the complexity, anxiety, worry, upset, schedule juggling, exhaustion, hard work, relationship issues between the parents, and financial consequences of raising a new life. Of course, I’m a proud dad and can’t imagine my life without my kids.

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      • Right, but if they desire a child and don’t go on to have one, their happiness drops off more steeply. It’s a little damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario, the happiest group being those who were never pricked by the desire in the first place. I suppose we should all emulate Buddha.

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      • drgeraldstein

        It probably would be easier for the Buddah since he was a guy. Seriously. But, the Buddah suggestion is a good one.

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  6. Dr. Stein, thank you for another of your thought provoking articles.

    In the world I grew up in, survival, not happiness, was the pursuit of life. Happy times were moments spent with family and friends in the simple celebrations of life. The same is true for the working poor of Brazil.

    The cost of living went far beyond low wages that couldn’t pay the monthly bills imposed by life in modern societies. As you so rightly say:
    “The real cost of living consists of the bruises, injuries, and heartbreaks endured in any life; the disappointments and the wearing away. The need to replace things, change ideas, and say goodbye far too often. The betrayals and violations. The personal mistakes and poor choices…”

    Americans take so much for granted and are unaware of the true cost in human labor and suffering worldwide of our standard of life.

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  7. Great post! I recently attended a silent meditation retreat and one of the sittings was about happiness and being “happy for no reason” — not having happy being hitched to anything. Also, I notice as a therapist that my clients believe that happy is our baseline/primary emotion, so educating around that has been really helpful. Thanks again.

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  8. Great post Gerald. Having faced many sufferings in life, many not of my own making has made me reavaluate what I define as happiness in life and my conclusion is that if I can achieve a calm heart, a peaceful mind and a contented life then I can achieve a great deal of happiness. I’ve missed out on a lot in life no husband or kids, very little materially no house not much money, many of the things that others would consider necessary to a successful life. But if I can maintain those three things in my life I consider that I’ve reached more happiness than most because they can be sustained through all the ups and downs that life throws at you

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  9. I agree, if belief systems make one miserable through unrealistic expectations and continual, internal warring against developing adaptation skills- new perspectives can change a life. But if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it 🙂 Great article.

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  10. […] Source: What Your Therapist Might Not Mention: How Assumptions about Happiness Cause Your Unhappiness […]

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