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Lessons About Happiness from Reality TV

Pursuing peace and well being is a work-in-progress.

I’ve always prided myself on my work ethic. So it may come as a surprise that I was relieved to get let go from the Fox Reality Channel. The producers hired me for a 10-episode gig for their program, Busted and Disgusted, which caught people on hidden camera committing embarrassing acts. My role was to comment about their behavior using my clinical psychology background.

Every week, to the producers' chagrin, I refused to attack and make fun of the show’s participants. So after six episodes, they said that they were no longer in need of my services. Shows like Busted and Disgusted highlight the media’s focus on the negative and viewer's appetite for it. In this blog post, I’ll describe the pitfalls of over exposure to society’s tragedies, and how our happiness requires an on-going commitment to pursuing the positive. 

Stories from the frontlines

When I first began my private therapy practice, I worked with a young man who was remarkably intelligent and full of life. Steven was a pleasure to meet every week. Sadly, he came from an adverse background, which left him full of pain, anger, and depression. After six months of working together, his life was improving, and he was overcoming the personal struggles that got in the way of his happiness. With his level of intelligence and commitment to change, he had a future full of opportunity. Unfortunately, half a year into his therapy he stopped. I later learned that he ceased focusing on personal growth altogether.

One evening, I was leaving my office and a man approached me. “Dr. Puff, my name is Steven, and I was a client of yours,” he told me. It took me a moment to figure out whom he was because he looked completely different from the Steven that was my client seven years earlier. I could see hints of his former self, but they were difficult to identify because he was unkempt and seemed disoriented—life had clearly not worked out well for him. We spoke for a moment and parted ways. Afterwards, I sat in my car and tears filled my eyes. I recalled our time together, so many years ago. Back then, Steven had enormous potential for happiness. But given his difficult background, it didn’t take long for him to deteriorate both emotionally and physically.

Although your upbringing may not have been as tough as Steven’s and your current life may not have turned out like his did, his experience points to how improving your life is within your hands. Through my nearly 20 years in private practice, I’ve seen over and over how the pursuit of happiness can yield priceless benefits. But it’s a constant work-in-progress that you must maintain for the rest of your life. 

Allow me to provide and analogy. In regards to your physical health, if you eat well, exercise regularly, avoid cigarettes, and drink in moderation, you’ll prevent all the illnesses and diseases associated with neglecting your body. Happiness is similar, but with an even greater benefit. Although there’s no way to reverse the aging process, happiness can actually increase as you get older.

The opposite of happiness in unhappiness 

Unfortunately, if you don’t pursue happiness then you’re pursing misery and suffering. It’s that simple. In regards to physical health, this extreme statement makes sense. If you neglect your body, then you will get out of shape. Likewise, if you neglect happiness, you will get out of “happiness shape.” Happiness takes effort, and if you don't’ work at it, I can guarantee that you’ll become unhappier as you age. And as you get older, you’ll inevitably find ways to mask the feelings inside. Your addictions may be subtle, such as shopping, TV, or food, or they may be more dramatic, such as alcohol and drugs.

So why is happiness a lifelong pursuit? One reason has to do with your background. Unless you had the most loving, perfect parents, and grew up in a completely positive and caring environment, chances are that you have some have some healing to do. If you don’t take time to address and fix the conditioning of the past, then you have a tendency to lean towards unhappiness. A second, subtler reason, has to do with the present. Our world focuses on the negative over the positive.

The media has developed a well oiled machine that feeds our fears and anxieties. Indulging in watching too much human tragedy—whether it’s through TV, radio, print or the Internet—will wear you out. Over time you’ll become more cynical and lose your faith in humanity. I challenge you to test this theory. Find someone who is hooked on the news, and I assure you that they are probably not very happy. If you’re one of these news junkies, when the temptation to overindulge arises, I encourage you to take a walk, spend time in nature, or watch the sunrise or sunset instead. Then see if you feel a bit happier than when you were glued to your smartphone or the TV.

When you surround yourself with that which adds to your happiness, you become more positive and peaceful. Meditation is an example of one of the most powerful ways to increase your overall happiness. In fact, science is proving that consistent meditation contributes to greater activity in the part of your brain that contribute to your happiness.

If happiness is something that you want to experience more of, it will take work. For example, if one of your greatest goals in life is to make lots of money, it will require lots of effort. And the poorer you are, the greater your commitment must be. With enough focus and guidance, wealth will come your way. In regards to your happiness, it takes a similar degree of commitment, and it always benefits you to have a guide. Blogs like this one are powerful resources to illuminate your path.

Happiness is something that is within your reach—regardless of your age or background. But because life provides countless temptations to indulge in unhappiness, it takes work to pursue peace and fulfillment. Take the time to plunge into activities that increase happiness, such as meditation, and see for yourself whether life gets better.