Imprisoned By Your Life

Happiness eludes many because what they believe will bring it has enslaved them.

Posted May 27, 2012

In the book “The Meaning Of Addiction” by Stanton Peele (you can read his Psychology Today posts here) he makes the following statement about addiction: “The difference between not being addicted and being addicted is the difference between seeing the world as your arena and seeing the world as your prison.” As someone who has worked in the field of addiction for decades I revered this quote. I purport however, that this sentiment is more universal.

Many people feel trapped by aspects of their life: trapped in an unhappy relationship, at an unfulfilling job, or generally unhappy with their life despite their basic needs being met.  The quest for the American dream has left them wanting, and more so, they are tied to ideas that are not providing happiness. As Shawn Achor points out in his excellent discussion of positive psychology on TED, our current model for happiness is to work harder, have success, and then happiness will ensue. But as Dr. Achor points out, this is a broken model; once success is achieved the bar is pushed further. Happiness is never achieved because, “if happiness is on the other side of success, your brain never gets there.” (You can watch his talk here).

In this culture, success is recognized through several structures. The most prominent feature is income. Money buys the things that denote success: bigger houses, more luxurious cars, trips, electronic toys, jewelry, and anything that makes others look on in envy. Another feature of success is status, especially in one’s career.

In the attempt to have success in order to bring happiness (which is only momentarily captured as the goal keeps moving) people become trapped in their life. In addition to always trying to accomplish more, the accumulation of status related things leads to being controlled by them. Many people feel overwhelmed with responsibilities. When inquired if they can let some of the responsibilities go, the answer is nearly always a resounding “No!”  This is then followed by explanation after explanation about how these responsibilities related to status are essential to their life. The individual is not experiencing happiness despite their attempts to achieve it by having more success, and thereby, more possessions and activities that denote success.

This brings us back to the beginning quote, which can be more generalized. People are unhappy because they view their lives as prisons. First they are prisoners to success. Students frequently report success as a goal when asked about their plans or desire for the future. People get married, have children, buy a home and cars, furniture, vacations, and whatever else they have been programmed to associate with happiness and success. After the novelty wears off, and their new goal to define success has been relocated even further up the scale, they feel like prisoners in their own life.

Sometimes this realization is evident; people are aware they feel trapped, even if they do not understand why. Other times they are unaware they have imprisoned themselves, and they can’t find escape. They then report being overwhelmed, stressed out, depressed or anxious. They have accepted an incorrect formula for happiness, and often are admonishing themselves for not being happy despite all they have.

The solution, according to positive psychologists like Shawn Achor, is to reverse the model. Happiness contributes to success, not the inverse. Some suggestions from Dr. Achor’s discussion include noting three different things daily you are grateful for, for 21 days. He reports this retrains the brain to look for positives rather than its typical focus on negatives. He then suggests journaling one positive event from the last 24 hours. He claims this allows the brain to relive it, releasing chemicals associated with happiness. Like many other helping professionals he recommends exercise. Many people, in striving for success, say they don’t have time to exercise. But exercise, according to Dr. Achor, “teaches your brain that behavior matters.” Again, as many psychologists suggest and clients bemoan, meditation is beneficial in breaking the cycle of the fast paced culture we have all come to accept. And finally he suggests conscious acts of kindness, where an individual praises one person in their support system, even through email. Again, this changes the focus to the positive.

There is much more someone can do to feel more like their life is an arena rather than a prison. Rather than simply buying into the cultures idea of success, and perhaps more importantly, how to demonstrate success, one can instead focus on enjoying their life. If people bought smaller houses, less luxurious cars, and otherwise didn’t define their place in life with the things they possess, they would be less likely to feel imprisoned. People wouldn’t have to work as hard, believing the new car, boat, or gadget would bring them happiness. More time would be allowed to be with loved ones, to connect, to realize it is the little things in life that matter. Of course, if you choose to flaunt your success so everyone knows you’ve accomplished the American dream, then you could just list those as the things you are grateful for. But I believe, as Epicurus said, “A free life cannot acquire many possessions, because this is not easy to do without servility to mobs or monarchs.”

Copyright William Berry, 2012 


Stanton Peele, The Meaning of Addiction, 1985.

Shawn Achor, The Happy Secret To Better Work, TED Talks, May 2011.

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