Seek Meaning and Openness to Pain, Not Happiness
Getting stuck chasing happiness? Why not try to chase meaning instead?
Posted December 27, 2019 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
There is an obsession in the Western world with improving happiness. Even at a global level, the United Nations has developed an annual world Happiness Report1, and the Gross National Happiness Scale has been developed in Bhutan as a happiness version of gross domestic product (GDP)2.
One of the problems with the focus on ‘improving happiness’ is that it is a very elusive concept. What exactly is happiness? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as feeling or showing pleasure or contentment, however, the meaning of pleasure is itself vague and circumstantial. Obtaining pleasure can involve positive behaviors such as going for a jog, but also destructive behaviors such as developing alcohol or drug abuse patterns. Trying to hang onto a euphoric, pleasurable state, or simply just to reduce existing pain through ‘a fix’ can only be a momentary pleasure – a form of chemically induced happiness, perhaps.
A second problem with a society's adopting a strict need to be happy is that it suggests that if we do not find happiness, we are somehow defective. However, an eternal state of happiness may not be normal, nor realistically achievable. Depression and anxiety are very prevalent problems in society. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the world, with the World Health Organization most recently estimating that there are 322 million people globally with depression and 260 million people suffering from anxiety3.
The fact that there is such a high prevalence of depression and anxiety in society suggests that happiness is not necessarily ‘normal’. Interestingly, there is a relation between a country’s GDP per capita and a lifetime risk of developing a mood disorder4. In the US, for example, with the highest GDP recorded worldwide (about $21.41 trillion), an estimated 46.4% of people are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder at some point in their lives, with about 28.8% reporting anxiety disorders, 24.8% reporting impulse-control disorders and 20.8% reporting mood disorders5. 17.8% of adults in the US form alcohol abuse patterns in their lifetimes, and about 12.5% become addicted to alcohol in their lifetime6. 7.7% of US adults form drug abuse patterns in their lifetime and 2.6% will form dependency7. So, nearly a third of the US population will suffer alcohol or drug abuse sometime in their lives. In addition to this, 13 in every 100,000 US citizens will die from suicide8.
In order to reduce depression and anxiety, many people use antidepressants (such as serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), though these can have certain adverse effects, such as sexual dysfunction, gastrointestinal effects (e.g., nausea, constipation, diarrhea), and central nervous system problems (e.g., increased anxiety, insomnia, sedation)9. Pharmaceuticals may treat the symptoms of depression and anxiety, but they do not necessarily work to make an individual happy.
From an evolutionary perspective, happiness may provide some survival advantage as it perhaps serves as a driver for social group-based cooperative cohesion. This may be one explanation as to why it evolved and why we so eagerly seek it. However, the hunter-gatherer’s survival may have also been promoted through anticipating and avoiding danger. So, ruminating on what went wrong the last time a predator nearly killed you, and worrying about what may go wrong in the future, may have had a survival advantage at one time. This may explain why we have a tendency to ruminate or worry about the bad events in our lives despite them making us more miserable and stressed.
Similarly, our stress system was evolved for immediate bursts, to kick in the fight or flight system and provide us with a sudden burst of energy to either fight off a predator or flee in the face of danger. Modern society involves many stressors, deadlines at work, relationship problems, family commitments, social events, stress with money and bills, etc. These continuous stressors are one major cause of many chronic illnesses that we find today: When we do not get the time to rest and repair, as the stress is constant, it impacts our immune system and eventually runs us down. Unfortunately, we can’t simply and successfully run away from these stressors like we could from a predator in the Neolithic period, so we can often form very unhealthy and unsuccessful avoidance behaviors that can steer us away from a meaningful and fulfilling life.
You may avoid an intimate relationship because you were hurt in the past, or a job you want because you'd have to present publicly, which causes you anxiety, or going to university because you fear you will not do very well. These are all examples of unhelpful avoidance behaviors that could be preventing you from living a meaningful life. We all want to live safely in our comfort zones, but the bigger things in life which we may want are often outside this zone. We have most likely all avoided something in our lives to avoid the chance of getting hurt or feeling anxious because something is different and unfamiliar.
However, there is hope. Some therapies, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), can help you develop a meaningful life as they focus on goal and value orientations. Defining meaning may be much more useful and productive than focusing on happiness. ACT is particularly good at providing a framework for how you can pursue a meaningful life when life is full of difficult and painful stuff that gets in the way. Unfortunately, most of this unhelpful stuff comes from our own minds, such as through painful memories or thoughts which tell you ‘you will fail’, ‘you are not good enough’, or ‘you are unworthy of the love of others’. ACT is useful for undermining these negative thought cycles and helping us engage with a meaningful life.
ACT can help us recognize that pain and suffering are normal, and that we should make room for the pain in a compassionate and non-judgmental way, which can allow us to move toward the things that we value. Pain can even help us realize purpose and meaning in life. For example, if someone was particularly hurtful to you, perhaps you did not like the ugliness you saw, and perhaps this motivated you to become a kinder person as a result.
The empirical evidence suggests that ACT is very effective for helping clients with a number of mental health problems, including anxiety, stress, and depression10. ACT, which is known as a third wave/generation therapy, focuses on developing psychological flexibility through six key processes: (1) developing a sense of living in the here and now (living in the present moment mindfully) rather than thinking excessively about the past or future; (2) recognizing that thoughts are just thoughts and not buying into them (called cognitive defusion), which undermines the destructive effect that negative thoughts can have on you; (3) developing acceptance and openness to pain, rather than forcibly suppressing thoughts; (4) developing a transcendent sense of self where you are not the product of your thoughts (called self as context); (5) identifying what is truly important to you (your values); and (6) developing commitment skills to ensure you build continually towards the orientation of your values (in a flexible and non-rigid way), even if these are small steps and even when you go off course (and we all do at times) and get stuck.
These skills can be particularly helpful for undermining the unhelpful and destructive thoughts that arise. Rather than playing tug of war or trying to suppress our negative thoughts, it is much more beneficial to accept and be open to them, to make some room for them. Thought suppression, where one actively tries to reduce the frequency of thoughts through mental effort – i.e., ‘I will not think about those painful memories and thoughts’, only serves to increase the thought's intensity and frequency, making you more anxious and depressed while consuming mental effort in the process11.
Making room for pain in an open and accepting way may seem counterproductive, but the evidence shows us that this is very beneficial in the longer term12, 13. Through learning to make room for pain we can begin to use our mental effort to orient our lives toward meaning rather than constantly struggling with thoughts. Coping mechanisms such as avoidance are intuitive: If something is in our way, why not just try to squash it? But the mind is like quicksand; the more you push against negative thoughts, the more you will sink in and get stuck. Instead, the evidence supporting ACT suggests that acceptance and openness to painful thoughts are more productive13.
Acceptance is not giving in to life’s problems. It is the first step to opening up to painful thoughts, rather than engaging in a constant, unhelpful struggle. If you cannot get rid of the monsters that are your self-destructive thoughts, then why not just take them along with you for the ride of life? Identifying values (one of the processes of ACT), such as ‘it is meaningful to me to develop deep relationships with people I care about’, ‘it is meaningful to me to become healthy’, or ‘it is meaningful to me to become educated’, can help us steer our lives in the right direction, like a life compass, and help us develop a meaningful life. Developing sensible daily or weekly goals to help us work towards these values is the next step. So, if you wanted to develop a meaningful relationship, the first step may be to reach out to a person you care about and to start to develop that relationship. Step outside of your comfort zone and commit to the doing, which will get you closer to the values and meaning in your life.
Finally, this is not to say that through developing a meaningful life you will not be happy. You most likely will feel more content and happy, but your focus will be on improving and living towards value-consistent behavior instead of chasing an elusive happiness, which points you to nowhere and gives you no clues on how to find it.
1. Sachs, J.D., R. Layard, and J.F. Helliwell, World Happiness Report 2019.
2. Ura, K., et al., A short guide to gross national happiness index. 2012: The Centre for Bhutan Studies.
3. WHO. Depression and other common mental disorders. Global health estimaes. . 2017; Available from: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/254610/WHO-MSD-MER-201….
4. Hidaka, B.H., Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence. Journal of affective disorders, 2012. 140(3): p. 205-214.
5. Sansone, R.A. and L.A. Sansone, Psychiatric disorders: a global look at facts and figures. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 2010. 7(12): p. 16.
6. Hasin, D.S., et al., Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of DSM-IV alcohol abuse and dependence in the United States: results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. Archives of general psychiatry, 2007. 64(7): p. 830-842.
7. Compton, W.M., et al., Prevalence, correlates, disability, and comorbidity of DSM-IV drug abuse and dependence in the United States: results from the national epidemiologic survey on alcohol and related conditions. Archives of general psychiatry, 2007. 64(5): p. 566-576.
8. Curtin, S.C., M. Warner, and H. Hedegaard, Increase in suicide in the United States, 1999–2014. 2016.
9. Predictable, S., Side effects of antidepressants: an overview. Cleveland Clin J Med, 2006. 73: p. 351.
10. Hayes, S.C., Get out of your mind and into your life: The new acceptance and commitment therapy. 2005: New Harbinger Publications.
11. Petkus, A., A. Gum, and J. Wetherell, Thought supression is associated with increased anxiety and depression in homebound older adults. Depression and Anxiety, 2012. 29(3): p. 219-225.
12. Peterson, B.D., et al., Using acceptance and commitment therapy to treat distressed couples: A case study with two couples. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 2009. 16(4): p. 430-442.
13. Hayes, S.C., K.D. Strosahl, and K.G. Wilson, Acceptance and commitment therapy. 2009: American Psychological Association.