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The Happiness Myth – Lets Keep Things In Balance

By Caroline Leaf - Clinical Neuroscientist Author And Speaker

Scrolling through Instagram, it is easy to believe that happiness is what we are all searching for, a “happiness” that usually consists of us smiling in front of commodities like money, cars or even likes on a picture. Marketing adds for new products almost always mention “happiness” as an end goal, whether we are watching an advertisement for a new soda, new holiday or a new drug. Smiling, happy people stare at us from billboards as we drive to work or walk around our neighborhood—there is no escaping them. Life is all about happiness…right? WRONG.

When it comes to our mental health, our understanding of happiness has overtaken the human condition. Whereas previous generations saw grief, anxiety and even fear as natural parts of human existence, for many of us today these (very normal) human emotions are an anathema. Sadness has almost become like a sin; often we are just told “don’t show it.” Indeed, many people are told there is something wrong with them biologically if they are sad for more than two months after losing a loved one, or if they are traumatised from a disturbing experience like war. Yet what is a “normal” grieving period? What is a “normal” response to violence and bloodshed? 

It is perfectly normal be sad, unhappy or stressed at times—this is not something we should be ashamed of. Rather than worrying about what we feel, we should ASK ourselves why we feel this way, or what is the root of our emotion, and how can we work on finding healing. Don’t mask the unhappiness--try understand it and resolve it. Our mental struggles actually help us build stronger characters and make us more resilient. Pretending to always be happy, on the other hand, or feeling guilty for not always being happy, is dangerous and will not help grow us emotionally or mentally. 

Part of the issue is that we often don’t know who we are. While many people are given labels and told there is something intrinsically wrong with their brain because they are sad or unhappy, more and more people are told that being themselves is not enough to make them happy, and “that is why you need to buy this product”. It is easy to see how, beneath all these conflicting messages, we don’t even know how to be satisfied discovering who we are, or are comfortable getting to know ourselves, with all the good and not-so-good bits. Yet we can hardly be “happy” if we don’t even know our own identity, as I discuss in my book the Perfect You. When we are rooted in a firm sense of our own belonging, we will find life more bearable, more interesting and more joyful despite periods of sadness! 

Discovering our unique, one-of-a-kind way of thinking is a challenge that can bring out the best of us. I have found repeatedly in my research and clinical experience and personal life that excitement rises when we adopt a positive attitude and persist in the face of a difficult task, which includes getting to know who we are! One of the greatest feelings in life is understanding something or completing an activity after a mental, and perhaps even physical, struggle. This leads to a sense of achievement as we rise to the challenge, contributing to our overall sense of pleasure, even if we are not always “smiling” and “happy” during the process.

As a society, we have to redefine what happiness means and why it is important. As I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeedhappiness has more to do with a sense of inner satisfaction than external consumption—it is a mindset, a way of seeing and interacting with the world. It is not a commodity or is it dependent on our surroundings. It is not an end goal that we are trying to reach. It is the joy we have living the “meaningful, good life,” and revolves around our ability to choose to focus on the positive, to connect with others, and to have meaningful relationships in a community. Happiness is knowing where we belong and knowing why we are alive, regardless of what is going on in our life. It is not so much a smile as a state of being that includes moments of sadness, anger, grief and, paradoxically, unhappiness.

So what are some ways you can develop your happiness mindset? 

  • Find Your Identity. When you begin to realize how impressive your mind is, you will be encouraged to persevere through challenges and develop a character that you can be proud of. You can become the kind of person that, on your death bed, will make you happy that you lived, and lived well. In my book the Perfect YouI have included the cutting-edge, evidence-based neuroscientific, neuropsychological and other research which I've used in my clinical practice over the years to teach people how to find their identity again. I outline, in a practical way, the importance of understanding your identity and how to develop a lifestyle of finding and developing your Perfect You—who you are at your core. The Perfect You can help you understand the science behind your character, that is your capacity to think, feel and choose in a way that aligns with the unique design of your brain. Once you begin to understand who you are, you can improve the way you process and reconceptualize the issues of life, your decision-making, your relationships, how you cope at work, school and at home, your sense of joy and purpose, and ultimately your mental health, which will enable you to function in and contribute to society.
  • Stimulate your Brain. Getting to the other side of a challenge brings a sense of happiness in the achievement and sets the stage for the next challenge with the addition of the new skills (aka new neural networks) you have gained from the challenge. Every day, think of ways you can challenge your brain, such as reading a difficult book for an hour or setting aside time in the day to learn a new language. For more information on memory building, see my book Think, Learn, Succeed
  • Join a Community. It is so important that we make the effort to connect with others in a meaningful and deep way, and get involved in our community, such as volunteering at a local non-profit, joining a book club or starting your own meet-up group. Indeed, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the link between happiness and a community mindset, which I also discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed. Not only does talking to someone about why you are feeling unhappy help you find healing mentally and physically but being around others is a great way to feel happy and content in life. Our bodies respond positively when we become active members in a community. For example, the mesolimbic dopamine system, a system linked to addiction, lights up when we give to others, giving us a deep sense of pleasure. We are essentially hardwired to love and serve others! 

It is important to remember unhappiness is a normal part of life, and does not mean you are a broken machine or have a disease. True happiness is a process, not a destination. It does not come from getting; rather it is based on giving and understanding yourself and your unique mind. 

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