Papermaking, (c) Ravi Chandra 2007

June 23, 2011

Marsha Linehan recently disclosed her severe bouts of emotional upheaval and self-destructive behavior.  As most of you know, she went on to develop Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, most often associated with treating Borderline Personality Disorder, a severe condition characterized by severe mood swings, self-injury and impulsivity, feelings of emptiness, and high sensitivity to abandonment.  Linehan revolutionized the field with her work, and gave hope to many people who were once thought untreatable.  In her self-disclosure, she reveals the extent of her suffering, and also a transformative spiritual experience in which she found self-love.  From that point on, she was committed to her wellness.  Her experience recalls Bill W's transcendent experience before he found AA.  Indeed, Carl Jung once wrote Bill W. that only such a spiritual experience could save him from the ravages of alcoholism.

Linehan's experiences and the methods of DBT remind me of some core aspects of happiness

First, unconditional self-acceptance, and self-love.  Metta (lovingkindness) should first be extended to oneself, and then extended to others.  Win or lose, succeed or "fail", your self-worth should not based on external valuations, but rather on your basic existence as a person.  Albert Ellis (proponent of Unconditional Self-Acceptance) remarked that even Hitler was acceptable as a human being; it's only his actions we deplore.

Second, a sense of interdependence, and connectedness with others and even all life.  This breaks down our inherent sense of independence, which turns pathologically into isolation, loneliness, and even devaluation of others and over-valuation of self, as well as what Buddhists would call mental poisons of greed, anger, jealousy, and ignorance, springing out of a mistaken belief in a fixed, permanent self.  Some people even call interdependence their "higher power".

Third, mindful awareness of thoughts and feelings, without identifying with them.  Developing the "inner observer" allows us to cultivate an inner reservoir of calm with which to meet the world.  

Fourth, acceptance of change.  Everything is impermanent, all things will transform.

Fifth, an acceptance that life is difficult, and no one is free from adversity and pain.  Knowing this allows us to cultivate wisdom, patience, forgiveness, compassion, equanimity and other healing emotions.  I'm reminded of Stephen Hawking's statement that he became happier after developing his disability ("Life and the Cosmos, word by painstaking word"). 

Sixth, a sense of meaning or purpose in life.  Certainly, setting goals and achieving them can give a sense of accomplishment.  But having a deeper sense of purpose gives a sense of resilience and an ability to withstand the "squalls" and tempests that are inevitable in life.  Linehan made it her mission to help others who suffered as she did, and this gave her life a trajectory and wholeness that defied all predictions.

Anything else you would add to this list?  I should note that studies have shown that beyond a certain level of comfort, money and possessions do not increase happiness.  

Cheers again to Marsha Linehan for her brave announcement.  I hope her disclosure, as well as her work, inspire others to wellness and compassion.

Update 6/30/16:  According to the Grant Study, relationships are the most important factor in happiness.  Of course, setting and achieving goals is very important as well.  These comprise Freud's "love and work".  I would add "play" to these as well.  The "Six Keys" above are philosophical perspectives, derived from research in self-compassion and mindfulness, and ultimately from Buddhist thought and writings.

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