One would assume that everyone seeks happiness in life, but unfortunately, this is far from true. Firstly, we aim to confirm the beliefs we have so as to be consistent and coherent with ourselves. We are simply comfortable with what we know regardless of how this makes us feel. When someone grows up in an environment in which they feel unhappy, they will set the stage to perpetuate what they know even if they do not enjoy the experience. They will also actively sabotage moments that would yield a different experience or emotional state. These experiences would create further beliefs that consolidate and support the original beliefs. In this case, one could develop a belief that would state something like: ‘if you are happy, then rapidly, you will realise that it is too good to be true,’ therefore further excluding themselves from the possibility of being happy since we are constrained by the beliefs we hold.
Secondly, many have false beliefs that state ‘being happy is dangerous and therefore needs to be avoided.’ This can originate from an external source that helped develop the false belief. For example, something I often see in patients from eastern European countries is a variation of the follow scenario:
“When growing up, I remember my grandmother often said ‘don’t be too happy because something bad will happen’ or ‘too much smiling will end in tears.’” Creating the false idea that there is some kind of balance between happiness and unhappiness and that happiness would come at a cost or would have negative consequences. Hearing something from an authority figure when at a young age is often given importance and taken quite literally. In our case, the grandmother’s statement became a superstitious belief that made being happy a threatening emotional state which was to be avoided and since we are constrained by the beliefs we have, it was. Without paying attention, the patient actively avoided happiness as they would feel threatened when happy and safe when unhappy.
A frequently used coping strategy aimed at sabotaging happy moments is the mismanagement of thoughts which is very effective in keeping someone from being happy. All one needs to do, is to give importance to a false and scary thought which they then develop into a scenario. For example, as I was having a good time with my friend Joe, I had the thought ‘what if this is the last time I see Joe.’ I wonder, ‘why would it be the last time? Maybe, Joe will die in an accident after our get together or maybe something happens to me on the way home.’ The trigger thought is elaborated into a scenario that generates strong feelings of sadness which take away the happiness of the moment without any real change in the situation. To change, all one needs to do, is to stop feeding parasite beliefs by confirming them in everyday life.
When one ceases to sabotage happy moments and that they start feeling happy more often, they often report feeling uneasy when happy, it’s unusual and uncomfortable not being coherent with one’s self. It is a phase one needs to go through before getting used to being happy and making it a ‘normal’ and non-threatening state.
Being happy is not a dangerous state to be in, it does not affect the probability of ‘bad’ things happening. Maximising happy moments and enjoying them to the fullest gives us energy which is greatly needed when addressing difficult moments when they occur. So, enjoying moments and being happy helps us address difficulty and does not provoke it.
Alexander Anghelou Psychologist specialised in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (www.cbt-brussels.eu)