Society tells us that we should be ambitious and that happiness can be found in material things
Challenging this mindset is possible and self-compassion is key, says Emma Kilburn
If you are struggling with long-term feelings of unhappiness, find a therapist here
My therapist recently pointed out to me that most people have what she would describe as ordinary, boring lives. We were discussing my ongoing unhappiness and the current efforts I am making to effect change. Currently, no one area of my life fulfils me in a meaningful and sustained way. While I can have moments or periods of happiness, they do not last and I seem unable to internalise those happy feelings or to incorporate them into a more permanent state of wellbeing.
Rather than a judgement on other people, her comments were aimed at encouraging me to consider the relative importance of the range of factors that feed into my happiness or otherwise, and at challenging my views around what I want and can expect from my life. This is of particular significance at the moment since I have just embarked on a course of study that in four and half years’ time will hopefully enable me to qualify to work as a psychotherapist. The decision to begin training was a huge one, and one that will entail a significant commitment of time, emotional energy and money. So far, while definitely taking me some way out of my comfort zone, the course has very much felt like the right thing to be doing, at the right time, and I have found the exploration of a range of theorists and the opportunity to practise the range of skills one might deploy in a therapeutic relationship challenging, rewarding and engaging.
Nonetheless, albeit I feel I could derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from the professional training, and that I feel a career as a psychotherapist could be a rewarding one, I need to be realistic about the extent of the impact this change could have on my life. In practical and day-to-day terms it could be significant, but it is important not to allow myself to be seduced by the myth of a panacea that will cure all my emotional ills and lead to a long-lasting sense of happiness and self-fulfilment. It is all too easy to believe that there is one job, person, possession, professional success or change out there that will solve everything.
While I have largely long since abandoned this belief, it remains a seductive one and I suppose takes me back to my therapist’s comment. I don’t think that I want or expect my life to be extraordinary, but I do want to fulfil my potential and I do feel that I have something to offer. This may not lead to absolute happiness but I hope that it might lead to greater contentment. And I think contentment rather than happiness is, or at least should be, the point. It seems more nuanced, less absolute, and therefore more attainable.
The problem with modern thinking
So much in modern life encourages us to adopt a binary narrative of success and happiness on one hand or failure and misery on the other. Social media, social convention, family, school, friends: all of them drive us to succeed, to be happy, to have and to do more. Much has already been said about the negative impact of scrolling through other people’s airbrushed versions of their best lives, and of the envy and FOMO this can stir up as we contrast bright, social media images with the slightly duller colour schemes of our own day-to-day lives. Yet while they reinforce all or nothing messages around happiness and success, it would be wrong to lay the blame solely at the door of social networks like Facebook and Instagram. Social narratives that tell us how we ought to live our lives have been present throughout history. While they may have been modified over time, they share common threads: we should be ambitious, aspire to wealth and success, be well-educated, get married and have a family.
On one level, these narratives serve a useful purpose. They support societal cohesion, provide individuals with a behavioural and social framework, and are logical in that the absence of the most key of these ingredients - money and work - can lead to anxiety and unhappiness. Conversely and perhaps counterintuitively however, these narratives can also make the unhappiness they seek to avoid more likely.
Firstly, their homogeneity can exclude people whose lives or life choices do not conform with their expectations, which are loaded with value judgements. As a single woman with no children, I can often feel that mainstream social discourse values me as ‘less’ than my married counterparts, no matter what active choices any of us have made, the impact of those choices on our wellbeing, or the areas of our day to day lives from which we derive most happiness.
Is happiness a dangerous goal?
Secondly, these narratives, by explicitly establishing happiness as a goal, fail to acknowledge the emotional complexity of our daily lives. The expectation that we should be constantly happy can be extremely harmful. While many of us are able to develop a more nuanced understanding of how our emotions can vary over time, the difficulties many people encounter when seeking help for periods of depression or anxiety for example, illustrate the way in which we tend to internalise the narrative that dictates that happiness equals success. The reality is that everyone’s mood can fluctuate.
If our expectation is that we should be constantly happy, we are likely to judge any other emotion as wrong. We see emotions such as anger, frustration and sadness as bad. Often this can lead us to making a value judgement about ourselves - if I have these bad emotions, then I am also bad - or to suppressing the emotions in ways that are ultimately harmful, unsustainable and cause greater emotional pressure. In fact, if we want to be happy, we need to be able to process all kinds of emotions, and to accept that they make up part of who we are.
When is enough, enough?
The third significant risk posed by these narratives of success or failure is the way in which that they encourage us to be endlessly aspirational. Good enough is never good enough. Rather, no matter how much we have, we should always be striving for more. Even thinking about this is exhausting, and the emotional pressure exerted by this drive for greater success is exacerbated by the fact that the more we achieve, the more we need to achieve to attain the same levels of happiness and satisfaction. Just like a drug, we need a bigger and bigger hit of success or happiness for it to continue to have the same psychological effect. Research into the impact of income on happiness provides a useful illustration of this phenomenon.
According to annual studies undertaken by the UK’s Office for National Statistics, earning less than than £20,000 a year is one of the key factors that increases our chance of being in the unhappiest 1% of the population. Logic would suggest that the more you earn over this threshold, the happier you might be. In fact, the law of diminishing marginal returns comes into play once people’s income begins to increase. What this means is that once people’s basic needs are satisfied, their desire for ever-increasing amounts of money generates every-decreasing returns in terms of happiness, and a similar study undertaken in American recently found that those in the top income bracket (over $100k) were no happier than those whose annual income was $25k or less.
This research points to some of the ways in which we can take ownership of our own personal narrative and hopefully achieve more sustainable levels of wellbeing. Data has shown that money rich can often mean time poor, as people dedicate increasing amount of time to activities that support further wealth acquisition, such as longer commutes and longer working hours. This is time that is diverted away from activities that can lead to increased level of happiness, such as time spent outside, pursuing interests, or with family and friends. We need to interrogate how we are spending our time, and evaluate which activities genuinely bring us the greatest happiness. A constant focus on future success can also sometimes blind us to the happiness we are actually experiencing in the present, since we are so preoccupied with what comes next. As with social media, we also set up unhelpful comparisons between the realty of the present and a possible, happier but as yet only imagined future.
A lack of money undeniably generates worry and feelings of insecurity. But once we have enough to meet our basic needs, that worry should diminish. The challenge is to be honest with ourselves about our relationship with money and to establish how much is enough. While a larger income may facilitate many of the activities that bring us genuine pleasure, we may decide that the pay off in terms of sustainable happiness is too great. We might also question how we as individuals feed these dominant social narratives that prescribe a certain definition of happiness and success.
Do we criticise those whom we perceive to have a lack of ambition as lazy, rather than acknowledging that they may well be happy with “good enough”? If we are honest with ourselves, do we use social media as a tool to show off our successes, with little thought for the impact similar posts by our contemporaries may have had on us? If we are parents, are we teaching our children that good enough is good enough or setting them on the path to a relentless and never-ending pursuit of achievement and success? Do we talk about friends who are just stay at home mums, or who just work in an office, or encourage our children to pursue option choices and career paths that may not be aligned with their personal strengths but which hold the prospect of a larger income and more significant social status?
Of course these are all complex issues and it would be wrong not to encourage our children to fulfil their potential. However, it is important that they - and we - are striving to lead fulfilling lives for the right reasons. On an emotional level, the endless pursuit of a perhaps illusory and unattainable goal of lasting happiness and success can lead to an increased fear of failure, as its negative counterpoint. We then often seek to manage this fear by means of a range of strategies that distract us but also in turn create a false self which can add further emotional pressure, partly because we feel alienated from our true feelings, but also because we have created an ideal to which we must now aspire. This can be seen in particular in the way we use social media to create an alternate, idealised image of ourselves and our lives. Albeit of our own making, this can often become a source of anxiety as we seek to live up to the expectations it creates. Fear of failure can also lead to further negative and emotionally damaging behaviours, such as emotional concealment or overspending. All of this often manic activity can help us to avoid our feelings and an understanding of what we really value. It can also form part of our ongoing effort to achieve and to have more.
How to change our mindset
It is possible to change our mindset however. We can be more honest with ourselves about our emotions and about what makes us happy, as we have seen. If we acknowledge our unhappiness, we are then more likely to identify the root causes of why we feel the way we do, which is turn makes it more likely that we can make appropriate changes to achieve a more sustainable state of wellbeing. We should aim to adopt a growth mindset. Unlike a fixed mindset, which sees mistakes and failure as indicators of the limitations of our fixed personality traits and potential, with a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed. If we can understand that we can learn from our missteps and mistakes, we can see that they are helpful and part of our ongoing process of self development. When we feel subject to extreme pressure to succeed, it is easy to develop a tendency to berate ourselves if we make mistakes or fall short of our own or others’ high expectations. Instead, we need to learn the art of self-compassion.
Mistakes are vital in that they help us to understand what we really want and how we really want to live. If we can adopt a growth mindset, mistakes can also help us to accept our emotional complexity. We can be more compassionate about our flaws and negative emotions and also learn to recognise that others value us even when we are unhappy or finding things difficult. In the same way that acknowledging our unhappiness can eventually lead us to a happier, more honest place, mistakes can help us lead a more fulfilled life in that they develop our self-knowledge and make us more visible to those around us - we put less time and effort into concealment, or into creating an illusion of success.
A growth mindset can enable us to derive more pleasure from life. If we focus on the journey and on the learning we accrue along the way, we become less anxious about the final outcome. Put another way, we can enjoy life and all of its vicissitudes, since we feel less pressure to work towards a goal of success and/or happiness. This can also potentially benefit our relationships with those around us, since by relinquishing our sense of an ideal relationship or ideal partner, we can approach our interactions in a more honest and open way. Challenges in our relationships can be seen as opportunities to create greater understanding and intimacy.
None of this is easy, but it is a more honest way of living. By allowing ourselves not to be happy, learning from our unhappiness, and setting our own realistic goals rather than accepting those imposed on us, we can come to terms with the idea that good enough is good enough, and achieve if not happiness then at least a greater sense of contentment and wellbeing.