Photo by Alexi Berry
In his book, “Be Here Now”, Ram Dass indicates we seek the secrets of the east, or mysticism, yet they are not hidden. They’ve been in plain view forever. Yet people continue to search, as if the answers are hidden. The same could be said of the secrets to happiness (one might actually contend they are one and the same). Even when the road to peace and happiness has been paved in front of them through research and experiments, people continue to suffer. Ram Dass says clearly, “The secret is a secret to you because of where your head is at” (1971). The goal of this post is to help you understand the obstacles to change, and to alter where your "head" is.
Studies show there are many behavioral strategies that lead to more enjoyment in life, more peace, more happiness, more well being. Exercise is demonstrated to release chemicals in the brain that contribute to confidence, a sense of well being, and even euphoria (not to mention the physiological health benefits) yet many remain sedentary. Meditation has been proven as effective as antidepressants for staving off relapse of depression, creating a calm and peace in life, and combating stress but few meditate. Focusing on the positive in life, through living in gratitude and journaling positive events, as well as sitting with the positive feeling, is indicated to increase levels of happiness in studies. (Achor, 2011; Hansen, 2009). Yet many, who have enough food, who live a relatively financially comfortable life, who have survival needs met, who are physically healthy or reasonably so, suffer psychologically.
So why do so many continue to suffer, when the answers are apparent? Both Tony Robbins and Henry Cloud, Ph.D. are credited with the quote, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” According to this theory, people aren’t doing what will lead to more happiness and peace because they aren’t in enough pain. This is a plausible explanation.
Contributing to the detraction of pain as a motivator to change is the possibility complaining about one’s lot in life is better than actually doing something to change it. I’ve been confronted many times by clients, students, or friends who believe there is nothing that can be done about their particular problem. Every option is impossible because of their beliefs about the change. So, rather than having to actually make change, they simply sit with their suffering and feel powerless. Perhaps the real reason is the suffering isn’t sufficient enough to motivate change. Or perhaps there is a profit from the suffering.
In psychological terms a payoff coming from a distressful problem is called secondary gains. Many people who have psychological distress (or physical illness) get attention, support, more love, or other reinforcers that make change less attractive. These secondary gains are often not perceived as worth the cost, yet their significance may be minimized. Perhaps, potentially on an unconscious level, these gains significantly buffer the pain, tipping the scales to choosing to remain the same rather than change.
Other obstacles to change are the defense mechanisms. As I’ve written in many previous posts (see “Are you overusing your psychological tools”, “How psychology can help or hinder enlightenment”, “I’m full of it, and so are you” and most recently “The big lie” for examples) defense mechanisms attempt to protect one from things that are threatening. Change is threatening. Often someone seeking psychological help, “deeply fears any shift in the way in which he currently handles his inner world and the world around him.” (Donnell, M, 2011;). As such, defense mechanisms may inhibit one’s ability to change, despite a conscious desire to do so.
Another theory might be that people create meaning from their suffering. This, in actuality and if perceived objectively, is more positive than negative. Humans want a meaningful life. Although existentialists posit meaning is created (and not inherent in life), having meaning makes one’s life more momentous. If suffering allows one to have meaning, then the solution to end suffering would be to find a more palatable meaning. Another option is to continue to suffer but find solace in the meaning derived from it. Viktor Frankl, in his seminal book, “Man’s Search for Meaning” describes a man whose wife’s death led to much suffering for him. Frankl asked the bereaved what would have happened if he had perished first? The man discussed how much his wife would have suffered had the situation been reversed. As such, his suffering now had meaning, and therefore he developed a better psychological position.
As I’ve written in “Overcoming unnecessary suffering”, and my last post, “You're unimportant; But it doesn't mean you can't be happy” being mindful and taking an existential view is a solution to suffering. Although the posts address two separate problems (creating suffering unconsciously, and perceiving thinking as more important than it is, respectively) the solutions are similar: mindfulness, insight, meditation, challenging thinking, and viewing things through a more distant objective frame of mind to overcome suffering. When these are combined with exercise and an improved diet, less suffering and more positive moods are bound to occur. Of course this takes effort. Perhaps the suffering you experience isn’t great enough to motivate such work. Or perchance you aren’t able to see the true cost of the pain you’re in due to defense mechanisms or the secondary gains. If you won’t change, at least embrace your suffering.
Copyright William Berry, 2014
Achor, Shawn; The Happy Secret to Better Work; TEDx Talk, retrieved from: http://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work
Dass, Ram; 1971; Be Here Now; p.103.
Donnell, Michael; 2011; The Role of Analytic Love in Therapeutic Action: A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the California School of Integral Studies; p.18
Frankl, Viktor; 2006; Man’s search for meaning;
Hansen, Rick; 2009; Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom.