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Robert J Maurer Ph.D.
Robert J Maurer Ph.D.

The Pursuit of Happiness

The greatest challenge in our lives

Alex Wong/
Source: Alex Wong/

Words change meaning over time. Some historians believe that the writers of the U.S. Constitution may have used the word “pursuit” differently than we do today. They suggest that the 18th century meaning implied practice rather than our current meaning, which is to seek or chase. What does this have to do with us? Well, our human brains have a very large capacity for folly and illusion. In our untrained state, we tend to chase happiness, believing it exists outside of ourselves. We are certain that if we can find the right partner, generate the right income, achieve the right waistline, etc., then we will be happy.

Perhaps, though, happiness is not meant to be pursued, but instead to be practiced. One of the most challenging and important lessons we have to learn is that we create our own emotional response to any circumstance. It is a human mistake and painful folly to chase goals in the hope that they will provide us with happiness, peace, or joy. Unhappiness and discontentment are bred, not in situations themselves, but instead in response to the conversations we have in our heads about them.

I’d like to share two examples that might help us to more easily understand this idea. First, imagine that you are telling me about someone whose words or actions have hurt you deeply. However, after you have shared the details of their behavior, I show you an MRI and CAT scan of the person’s brain, and convince you that the reason he or she has been so cruel is due to a brain tumor that impairs judgement. Would that change your feelings? For most people, the answer is an immediate yes. So, what has changed? Not the person’s history, nor their behavior. Instead, the change has been in the conversation in your head about why they behaved so poorly,

A second example focuses on our emotional response to rejection. Rejection, of course, can be painful. It comes in many forms, with romantic rejection one type. Consider the following scenario: You approach an attractive person and ask him or her for a date on Saturday night. Their response is, “I would love to, but I’m flossing that night.” You walk away after hearing this lame excuse and feel hurt and disappointed by the thoughtless rejection, right? Well, maybe…and maybe not. As you walk away, which of these two inner voices do you hear? Behind Door Number One: “Wow, am I proud of you for taking a risk and trying. You are so brave!” while all the while the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is singing the Halleluiah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in your head. Or, do you hear what is behind Door Number Two: “Wow, did you sound like a loser. It’s no wonder he or she said no…you’re ugly and old and pathetic!” If Door Number Two sounds like a more familiar version of our inner voice, the question to ask is: “So where does the pain come from? Was it actually the person telling us no, or the harsh conversation we have in our heads that hurts us most?”

Intimate or meaningful relationships, or pursuits at home, at work, or in the community, can trigger almost daily opportunities to confront, and possibly revise, our harsh inner voices. The more human we are, the more common it is for us to try to change the other person or the situation to keep our inner voice quiet…and I suspect we all know how well that works out!

In our next blog, let’s explore some effective strategies for reprogramming our inner voices in ways that will give us freedom in our emotional responses to the challenges in our lives. In the meantime, let’s all keep listening to hear exactly what it is that we’re saying to ourselves.

About the Author
Robert J Maurer Ph.D.

Robert Maurer, Ph.D., a professor at UCLA, is the Director of Behavioral Sciences for the Family Practice Residency Program at UCLA.

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