Our culture places a high value on happiness—having the best job, house, the most friends, things in general. We’re constantly in a state of grasping for something—filling ourselves up from the outside.
And it’s totally bumming us out.
Susan David is a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. She says our obsession with happiness hinders our ability to do the hard work of living: being able to recover from setbacks when we inevitably make mistakes, or lose a job—you know, when that picture-perfect veneer we were working away at starts to erode.
It is really important that as human beings we develop our capacity to deal with our thoughts and emotions in a way that isn’t a struggle, in a way that embraces them and is with them and is able to learn from them.
Harvard Medical School
“It is really important that as human beings we develop our capacity to deal with our thoughts and emotions in a way that isn’t a struggle, in a way that embraces them and is with them and is able to learn from them,” says David in a recent video for Big Think. She continues:
What I worry about when there is this message of be happy is that people then automatically assume that when they have a difficult thought or feeling that they should push it aside, that it’s somehow a sign of weakness. And what that does is it actually stops people from being authentic with themselves. It hinders our ability to learn from our experience. And I believe that it is stopping us as a society, including our children, from developing higher levels of well-being and resilience.
David suggests we instead focus on what’s important for us, and happiness will become “a byproduct of that focus”:
Go Deeper: Listen to a Guided Mindfulness Practice for Turning Toward Difficulty
If you want to work on turning toward any difficulty you might be dealing with right now, explore this practice from meditation teacher and author Ed Halliwell, author of Into The Heart of Mindfulness.
Sometimes our experience is painful and difficult. And there may be little or nothing we can do about the arising of the pain or difficulty. In these cases. We may be able to work with what’s happening skillfully by exploring our relationship to it. Most of us have a habitual pattern of turning away from problems or trying to get rid of unpleasant events. Unfortunately, this often seems to increase our sense of stress because if pain is already present, you can’t get rid of it by trying to run away from it. So in mindfulness practice, we gently experiment with reversing this habit by turning gently towards difficult experiences that come up in our meditation.
This practice is usually best done in small doses at first. Preferably working with difficulties that aren’t likely to be overwhelming. It’s important to remember that you’re in charge of how you undertake this experiment. You can return to mindfulness of breathing as an anchor at any time or let go of this practice for a while if you need to, being kind to yourself.
Research suggests that we turn towards pain and discomfort, we can experience less of it. Read more on the science and practice of staying present through difficult times.