Society tells us we can be happy, we should be happy. Subliminal messaging in media, movies, music, commercials, billboards tells us you will be happy if you…, once you… Look this way, wear these clothes, make this income, live in this home, buy these products, be in this relationship, have this family, drive this car, travel to these places, have these friends, live in this neighborhood, the list goes on and on.* And it’s not just advertising and pop culture that push this narrative; it’s our friends, our families, our well-intentioned loved-ones who want us to be happy and have also been led to believe that these things equal happiness.
So we comply. We invest time, money, energy into careers; graduate college with massive debt so we can climb the corporate ladder—if we’re lucky enough to find a job. Get a mortgage and a car lease—and more debt. Settle down—or sometimes just settle—and start a family. We spend our money on the things that indicate success, but every time we reach the next level, the one that means we “arrived,” we realize that the goal post has moved. There’s a new next level we must work toward. Happiness becomes an ever-shifting, ever-elusive target. In this game, the only winners are the ones who don’t play.
Meanwhile depression, anxiety, and drug abuse are at all-time highs. Life expectancy is actually declining for the first time in decades. We don’t feel we have purpose. We don’t feel we matter. Whether or not we can claim any “indicators of success,” we are hurting. In the absence of true happiness we self-medicate in a myriad of ways. Addiction manifests in obvious forms—drugs, drinking, gambling, smoking— but also in insidious, often unacknowledged ways. Shopping, eating, gaming, sex, exercise, and technology are just more attempts to dull the pain. Our ubiquitous screens have become all-consuming. Most of us justify our screen time with platitudes about being connected, staying informed, discovering new entertainment, or any other of the countless uses we have for our devices, but the fact is we are desperate to distract ourselves from the truth of our reality—we aren’t happy.
But what if society’s checklist for happiness isn’t what keeps us from being happy? What if we are the reason we aren’t happy? For many of us a lifetime of bad experiences and negative beliefs about ourselves have quietly informed our sense of self. To be happy would contradict the core beliefs we have about ourselves. This is not to discount the outside circumstances and events that may have contributed to our unhappiness. But what if we have so internalized the messages implicitly communicated by these things—I am unlucky, good things don’t happen to me, no one values or respects me—that deep down we don’t believe we deserve to be happy? When we truly internalize this it subconsciously guides our thoughts and actions. We seek out people and experiences that reinforce our negative self-view and it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
To be sure, happiness is always and ever our conscious goal, but subconsciously we are actively sabotaging any possibility of finding it. When we seek happiness outwardly—work for the promotion, get engaged, buy a house, etc.—but our internal thoughts tell us we are undeserving of these things, it creates cognitive dissonance, further increasing our own sense of dis-ease. The response is predictable: we seek to alleviate our discomfort through our various addictions or by reaching for the next item on the checklist of success, but still we feel empty. We self-medicate even more, hoping to at last ease the pain, yet the more unhappy we feel, and the cycle continues.
As it progresses, our cognitive dissonance becomes so acute that we begin to reject the very idea of happiness altogether. We mistrust the prospect of happiness to the point of no longer seeking it. We convince ourselves that it is a false promise, unattainable, an illusion. It feels safer to be unhappy. There is no risk, no heartbreak, no disappointment, no failure if you don’t seek out happiness. When you have no hope, no one can take your hope away. As Bob Dylan sang, when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose. And underneath it all is a twisted sort of comfort in the pain, because at least it is familiar. After all, we are nothing if not creatures of habit, even when those habits are harmful or self-destructive.
Perhaps the most common manifestation of this self-sabotage is in our relationships. We long for love and companionship yet so often are drawn to partners who are bad for us. In the most extreme cases there is physical or sexual abuse, cheating, or abandonment, but there are so many other ways relationships can be unhealthy. It may be a partner who belittles us, is jealous and possessive, controlling, negative, doesn’t celebrate our success, holds us to unrealistic standards, or is just an incompatible match. However it may express itself, the fact that we find ourselves in these relationships over and over ultimately reflects a tragic fact—that we believe this is what we are worth, what we deserve. Our subconscious is drawing us to people who will reinforce what we already believe about ourselves. And when that happens, we gain more “proof” that our beliefs about ourselves are right.
When we are lucky enough to find someone who truly loves and cares for us, we subconsciously try to sabotage it. Our insecurities whisper that it’s too good to be true, they don’t truly love us, eventually they will leave, we will be heartbroken. Our doubts drive a wedge of suspicion between us that grows slowly over time, until they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As well, we become disillusioned by resentment and disappointment that this person didn’t make us happy the way we thought they would, because we failed to see that no one else can fill that emptiness for us, no matter how much they love us. This is most evident in romantic relationships, but can also manifest in our relationships with friends and family.
Our careers are another instance where we hold ourselves back. Perhaps there is a secret passion we always wanted to pursue but never did. When we ask ourselves “why not?,” there is usually a long list of reasons. I don’t have time; I don’t have money; I don’t have enough education/training/expertise; I’m not good enough; it’s a waste of time; it’s too late (I’m too old); I need to take care of other things first. We generate a convincing list with enough legitimate concerns that we fool even ourselves, but in the end they are really only excuses.
We end up in unhappy, unfulfilling jobs. Perhaps we settled for a career we didn’t love in order to have a higher income. Or we don’t put our best effort into our work because we don’t think it will be noticed or appreciated by others. We lack the self-assurance to confidently promote our abilities and achievements to our bosses or potential new employers or start the business we always dreamed of. Perhaps we “climb the ladder” halfway and then settle, thinking this is the best we can hope to get. There are many scenarios, but for many the truth is we don’t pursue our dreams because we don’t want to feel the sting of rejection; and we believe we will be rejected because we don’t believe we are deserving of success. And when we don’t achieve success, we again gain “proof” that our narrative about ourselves is right.
There are so many more, often benign, innocuous ways that we impede our own happiness. In order to justify to my conscious self why I’m not pursuing any given interest, my subconscious creates unrealistic prerequisites. I have a long list of dream projects I’d like to start one day, and an even longer list of to-do’s I must finish before I can start them. I’ve so carefully constructed these rules that the thought of starting a project when there are un-finished must-do’s causes extreme anxiety and I no longer have any interest in doing it. Some of the to-do’s are truly necessary, like wash the laundry, clean the bathroom, pay bills, etc, but the truth is these things are part of daily life. They will never be completed. There will never be a day I don’t have any more dirty laundry, bills to be paid, or messes to be cleaned. As soon as I feel like my to-do’s are all checked off, it’s time to do laundry again so that project will have to wait longer.
Modern life has a way of adding to this sense of never-ending busy-ness. We are constantly on the move, going to work, to kids’ lessons and playdates, to weekend events, on our phones, texting our friends, checking the news, updating our social media profiles. Our addictions and unhealthy habits—our misguided attempts to feel happy—actually push happiness further away by driving away loved ones, impairing our job performance, ruining our finances, etc. In the end these things are just more distractions to keep us from doing the things we love, things we find satisfying, because we don’t believe we deserve to feel fulfilled. Because it feels safer to not try.
The search for happiness is terrifying because it requires vulnerability. It means putting yourself out there. It means letting others see your genuine self. It means risking rejection. When you hope you may also hurt. We spend so much of our lives running away from the mere specter of pain but the consequence is that we lose connection with ourselves, our most authentic selves—the part that actually knows what we need to be happy, the part that knows who we truly are, what truly motivates us, what truly fulfills us.
What, then, is the next step? How do we break this cycle? There are no simple answers, no 3 Easy Steps, but there is a way forward. Recognize, first, that nothing and no one can make you happy if you don’t believe you deserve it. It’s not something you will find externally—people and situations can add to our joy, but they can never be the source of it. Nor is there any amount of artificial achievement or self-numbing that will bring happiness. Once we recognize what our deep-rooted beliefs are, comes the seemingly Herculean task of changing them. It’s not an easy feat to reprogram our brains from beliefs we’ve held true most of our lives. It upends our entire construct of who we are and creates a new kind of cognitive dissonance as old and new beliefs contradict each other, but it is necessary nonetheless.
Compassion for yourself is the most essential component throughout this entire process. The first opportunity to demonstrate that you believe you deserve gentle, loving care is here, with yourself. As you recognize the beliefs you hold, you will undoubtedly begin to recall circumstances and events in your life that led you to those beliefs in the first place. There is likely a lot of pain around those memories, perhaps emotions you’ve never allowed yourself to truly feel, instead burying them because the hurt was too great to bear at the time. Acknowledge those emotions with compassion and understanding, even the anger and resentment. While this may may seem counter-intuitive, it is necessary to break the cycle of self-abuse. To respond to these emotions by criticizing or rejecting them would reinforce the negative self-view that you are trying to change, and it keeps those emotions suppressed, perpetuating the cycle. Instead allow yourself to experience them as authentically as possible so that you can let them go.
As you begin to internalize your own self-worth, you must also explore what true happiness looks like to you. The more you find healing the more you’ll reconnect with your intuition, a voice that has probably been quieted for a very long time. Learn to listen to this voice—it knows better than anyone else what you need for happiness. Embrace the things that give meaning to you and let go of all of society’s other pretenses.
Practice living in the present. We structure so much of our lives in order to escape ourselves, our truth, our pain that it feels foreign, even scary, to just be in the moment. When we aren’t in the present we are running from the past or fearing for the future, which only magnifies our suffering that much more. Practice appreciating who you are, where you are in life, what you have, what you’ve accomplished. Realize that you can have goals in life and challenge yourself to grow, while at the same time be content with yourself and where you are.
Lean on others when possible to help you as you work through these things. A trusted spouse or partner, friend, family, even therapist, can help you when you’re in a low place or feeling stuck. Seek out people who care for you and show it in the way they treat you. Change or end relationships with people who bring you down, that don’t reflect your new sense of self-worth.
Most of all, have patience with yourself on your journey. It will be hard, it may be long, and you may feel you go backward as much as you move forward. This is all part of the process, and you will feel frustration, disappointment and hear those old, negative voices speak up from time to time. Be patient, be compassionate, be loving—if you want to receive those things from people around you, you must first demonstrate them to yourself. Yes, it will be painful, but look at us—does the alternative offer any less pain?
A question was once posed to me: do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? Do you want to be right about your narrative, what you believe about yourself, your worth, your abilities; do you want to let your self-doubts continue to lead you to people and situations that only prove you were “right” about how you see yourself? Or do you want to let go of those self-destructive beliefs; to begin to see you are deserving, worthwhile, lovable; to be happy?
* This is not to say achieving these things is inherently bad or wrong, just that they themselves do not bring us happiness.