Is "Being Happy" a Realistic Therapy Goal?
“What are your goals for therapy?” is the question I ask new clients after the first few sessions of getting to know each other. The most common answer is “I want to be happy.”
This is the moment where my role as therapist begins. Most people see happiness as the goal, the emotion to strive for in their lives. But what does “being happy” mean?
To some, it means the immediate emotional response you feel when you're doing something you enjoy or are feeling loved. To others, it means wanting to look back at their lives and say in a general sense, “yes, I was happy”.
But the reality is the feeling of happiness never lasts. Throughout your day you probably experience a range of emotions. Some last longer than others, but all of them are fleeting. This roller coaster is our body's normal chemical response to outside stimuli, internal thoughts, and past experiences. In very simple terms, our body releases hormones that make us feel a certain sensation in the body and mind, and we then label these sensations with feeling words such as “sad”, “mad”, or “excited”. This increase in hormones eventually dissipates. How long they last depends on what caused them in the first place and our body’s individual mechanisms. If you seek happiness, you might be able to attain it temporarily, but the feeling will go away. Even if everything in your life is perfect, this emotional response cannot be sustained. If your goal is to feel happy all the time, you will always feel disappointed when you aren’t able to hold onto it.
So, does this mean it’s “bad” to want to be happy?
No, of course not. We all enjoy the feeling of happiness. This is a universal feeling we can all relate to and label as “good”. But I’m suggesting that it is also not “bad” to experience sadness, worry, or any other emotion we label as “negative”. Experiencing all emotions and being aware of them is our unique human experience. Without experiencing other emotions, you wouldn’t have anything to compare happiness to, making it lose it's significance. If you can learn to observe every feeling as it comes, without attaching your identity, value, or permanence to it, then you revel in the amazing response our body has to different situations and be grateful for EVERY emotion that arises. Remember that every emotion passes. It is not who you are, but instead a mechanism that your body produces. This is where mindfulness is important.
What should my goal be then?
I’m also suggesting that we stop trying to “be happy” and shift our mindset to being content with where we are at all times. To some, contentment sounds like “settling”, even a bit boring. People want to have exciting, emotion-filled lives. That’s great! Have that life now, from where you are now. Experience each emotion you feel, but do it with acceptance. Without rejecting the “bad emotions”.
Contentment is acceptance of where you are, without needing anything else. If you are content with your life, you accept all things labeled as “good” or “bad” as just things that “are”. This mindset will last longer than the feeling of happiness if you can approach each moment from this perspective. I think this is what most people actually want when they say they want to “be happy”.
If your goal is to “be happy”, what would it look like to shift your intention towards feeling content instead?