As a therapist, the number-one goal I hear from my patients is: "I just want to be happy." I ask, "What would being happy mean to you?" The answers range from "Everything I wish for will happen" to "I will feel good all the time" to "I won't ever feel sad or disappointed."
These patients are deeply misguided: believing that bliss is a permanent, attainable state is both unrealistic and emotionally dangerous. Awful things occur that we cannot control, and that will and should at least temporarily affect how we feel.
A utopian world would be like I Love Lucy: it would be possible to have a minor stress of the week resolved in 24 minutes
My happiness-seeking patients are also, sadly, doomed to fail. It's a time-worn paradox: the more you obsess over whether you are happy or happy enough, the unhappier you are. As I've witnessed from years of counseling patients, contentment emerges as a byproduct of a good life, not from the pursuit of it being your life's purpose.
Here are some of the most common myths my patients believe about happiness — and how I help my patients move past them.
1) They keep saying, "I'll be happy when..."
When Philip (all patients' names are changed) began therapy, his heartfelt belief was it would be impossible to enjoy life until achieving X goal. After achieving X goal, there'd be a brief spike of joy before he sank back into gloom, anxiety, and self-doubt. So he'd set Y goal, hoping the elusive happiness he longed for would follow.
As we worked together, Philip came to realize his hypercritical father, an acclaimed heart surgeon, had drummed into his head that he wasn't worthy of being accepted and loved unless he did great things. Philip told me, "Growing up, getting a single or double in Little League wasn't enough. According to my dad I had to hit a home run to deserve to feel proud and happy."
Philip was able to call his now-retired father and say that these impossible standards had left him unable to enjoy life. After this conversation, Philip told me, "Dad was mortified. He said he'd always been proud of me but he raised me the way his father raised him."
Nowadays Philip is able to choose goals he wants rather than ones he desperately needs to reach. "Since how I feel about myself isn't dependent on whether or not I publish a novel or get a skydiving certificate, I can enjoy the ups and downs along the way."
2) They believe problems should come and go quickly
A utopian world would be like I Love Lucy or The Big Bang Theory: it would be possible to have a minor stress of the week that is resolved in 24 minutes. In the real world, of course, we're confronted with traumas and tragedies —traumas and tragedies that we can't be inoculated from by reaching a permanent happy state.
Peter began therapy a few weeks after his father died from lung cancer. After months and months of grieving, Peter was back on an even keel. He'd always miss his dad but resumed the sweeteners of daily life — seeing movies, spending time with his fiancée, playing basketball. "I'm cured — I'm good," he told me. I responded, "I'm so glad you're feeling better, but life doesn't stay fixed."
A month later Peter received a negative work review. He came in to our session, crying, "I can't deal with the stress of this. I need things to be easy. I can only handle being happy!"
I encouraged him to allow his resurgent grief to wash over both of us. He said a few weeks later, "I thought it was smart to try to always feel good, but I realize that's impossible. If I'm generally in a good place I can deal with bouts of depression. Bottling up bad feelings or pretending they don't exist will just land me back where I started."
3) They think a four-star meal or an Apple Watch will make them happy
Many of my patients get wide eyes when they see people with bigger cars, bigger houses, more expensive wardrobes, and the latest gadgets. They think, "If I had that, I'd be happy!" This fantasy is partly due to canny advertising presenting us with the equation that expensive things = lasting happiness.
Kara fell for this fairy tale. She started therapy after a serious shoe shopping addiction left her in debt. She sighed, "When I felt lonely or depressed I'd log on and buy more Christian Louboutins. It felt great. Only the high wouldn't last long, and what I bought mostly stayed in the closet."
We worked hard to get her off this hedonistic treadmill. Expensive purchases offer a fleeting pleasure that vanishes shortly after the box is ripped open.
Kara said, "My parents never had time for me. Which made them guilty. It got to the point that I could blackmail them into buying me anything I saw on TV that looked exciting. But I realize now the thrill was getting them to think about me long enough to whip out their charge card. For those few minutes, I mattered."
What she craved was attention and love, not things. My patient sold her Imelda Marcos-esque shoe collection and now avoids shopping websites. "I know now I can't buy happiness," she said. "My parents were distant. Boo hoo. I'm done punishing myself."
Kara now owns something that can't be bought with the click of a mouse: contentment in who she is and how she lives her life rather than in what she possesses.
4) They think the only way to be happy is for everything to be perfect
Being a pet owner has taught me nearly everything I know about being happy. When Shea (he's a Mets fan wrapped in a terrier/schnauzer/Yorkie's 10-pound body) and I go for a walk, he doesn't know or care about the destination. There's always time to stop for a sniff, leg lift, or frenzied barking jag at a pigeon. Each aspect of his experience is cause for tail wagging.
However, Shea also shows me what happens when this enjoy-the-moment mindset is abandoned. The local dog park has two sections separating the big breeds and the wee ones. Shea is perfectly content in his half until there is action on the other side. Then he runs to the fence between the Mutts and Jeffs and barks piteously, inconsolably at the dogs he can't join. I say, "Shea, you have three buddies right here begging for your attention!" No dice. In that moment Shea has chosen misery.
"I'm cured — I'm good," he told me. I said, "I'm so glad you're feeling better, but life doesn't stay fixed."
For a long time, so did my patient Tina. She told me a week after returning from a much longed-for vacation to Hawaii: "What's wrong with me? I was so looking forward to my trip to Oahu. Once I was there, nothing lived up to my dreams. The view from my terrace wasn't gorgeous enough, there was rain one day, we couldn't get reservations at the restaurant I was dying to try..."
As we talked, Tina came to see that Oahu wasn't at fault — it was her longtime pattern of obsessing over minute details that weren't perfect rather than appreciating what was present. "I didn't enjoy my trip of a lifetime as much as I should have, but hopefully now that I see how I ruin things for myself I can make better choices."
5) They confuse stability with happiness
My patient Jim lived a safe life. He enjoyed his job, had a supportive circle of friends, and loved his apartment. Yet he spent session after session saying, "What's wrong with me? Why am I so scared to approach a pretty woman and ask her out?"
We discussed his fear that he couldn't survive the few minutes of anxiety he would feel walking up to his potential date. "Why is it easier to beat yourself up day after day because you played it safe?" I said. "It doesn't matter whether the woman you ask out says yes. You'll be able to say to yourself, ‘Yes, I can do this!'"
Inevitably came the week when Jim rushed in excitedly: "I asked someone out at a Starbucks! She said no, but just like you said, Sherry, it felt great not to let anxiety rule me!"
The next women he asked out said yes. They only went on one date, and Jim still finds it scary to approach someone. But he is increasingly confident that he's moving past this once-insurmountable hurdle.
6) They buy into their parents' standards for what happiness is
This is a pattern you've probably noticed in the patients I've described so far: they are often haunted by their parents' visions of success. This was true of Jenna: six months after her small business went under, although she'd landed on her feet financially she couldn't find her emotional footing. "What was I thinking? Nothing ever works out for me. I was born under an unlucky star."
I said, "I know this was awful, but let's explore the origins of your all-negativity-all-the-time mindset."
While growing up whenever Jenna had a big dream, her mother derided it. "Mom was a Depression baby," Jenna said. "I know she was looking out for me in her own way, but her constant reinforcing that nothing I tried would ever succeed made me believe nothing ever would."
I said, "Despite all that, you started your business. And then it didn't work out, which seemed like confirmation that the world is determined to keep you small. But that you started it shows your inner warrior spirit."
Jenna smiled for the first time in the session: "I never looked at it that way. But I am a strong, determined woman."
"Don't forget talented!" I reminded her.
"Yes, I am that! And I learned so much from my business that I can use in another venture I've been mulling..."
Jenna had subconsciously inherited her mother's oft-repeated vision of happiness: dreaming big leads to disappointment, so better to keep expectations low. Jenna realized her mother's defeatist (though well-intentioned) idea of happiness needn't be her own. Having big ambitions can be a good thing. Rather than being the end of the world, disappointment can be something to build from and start anew.
Sherry Amatenstein is a couples therapist in New York City, as well as the author of three books on relationships.