The happiness plague

JILL STARK
Last updated 13:04 17/06/2013
Happy

DON'T WORRY: You don't have to be happy all the time.

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A growing number of psychologists and social researchers now believe that the "feel-good, think positive" mindset of the modern self-help movement has backfired, creating a culture where happiness is king, and uncomfortable emotions are seen as abnormal. 

They also suspect that this, "don't worry, be happy" focus is partly to blame for rising rates of binge drinking, drug use and obesity. The more that genuine contentment eludes us, the more we seek to fill the gap with manufactured highs.

But as we try to anaesthetise feelings of sadness and disappointment, our rates of depression and anxiety continue to climb. Business for counsellors, life coaches and self-help gurus is booming. Could it be that in a bid to avoid adversity, loss, and failure we're only exacerbating our unhappiness?

"So many people now think, 'If I'm not happy, there's something wrong with me.' We seem to have forgotten that feelings are like the weather - changing all the time; it's as normal to feel unhappy as it is to have rainy days," said Russ Harris, a British-born Australian doctor and author of The Happiness Trap, in which he argues popular wisdom on happiness is misleading and destined to make you miserable. "Increasingly people are developing anxiety about their anxiety and dissatisfaction about their dissatisfaction. Painful emotions are increasingly seen as unnatural and abnormal and we refuse to accept that we can't always get what we want. This sets you up for a struggle with reality, because the things that make life rich and full - developing a meaningful career, or building an intimate relationship, or raising children - do not just give you good feelings, they also give you plenty of pain."

As the "happiness industry" has exploded, so too has the self esteem movement. Parents have been taught that self esteem is the cardinal virtue for raising well-adjusted kids.

But therapists are warning that rather than breeding self-confidence, this outpouring of praise may be turning children into emotionally fragile narcissists.

They say the value of hard work has been replaced by the belief that every child is "special" - a phenomenon fuelled by rampant consumerism and reality TV shows, which promise, "If you want it enough you can have anything."

Some of the world's leading happiness experts now fear that the self esteem juggernaut will leave future generations hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with life's disappointments.

Among the delegates will be Harris, and Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, maintains that bubble-wrapping children against unhappiness makes them more likely to fail.

"More and more, parents are unwilling to let their children struggle. They want them to feel good at all times so they're telling them how smart they are, they're really showering them with what we call person praise - 'you're talented, you're smart, you're special' - to help them feel good about themselves all the time. My research shows it backfires. It makes kids worried and tells them that the name of the game is to be smart. Then when we give them harder problems they don't do well and they lie about their performance because their ego gets so wrapped up in all of this. But if we give them what we call process praise - 'you focused well, you tried hard, you used good strategies'- then it makes them want hard things, where they can apply their effort and strategies and be resilient. They're not being measured for their basic qualities; they're being rewarded for their application."

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Dweck urges parents to talk to their children not just about their victories but their struggles. Like Harris, she maintains that accepting setbacks and unpleasant emotions, rather than trying to block them out, is the key to building resilience. "Research has shown the great successes are people who are able to endure long periods of tedious work to accomplish what they want. If we're taught things should be effortless - we should be happy all the time, everything should be exciting and interesting - we're at a great disadvantage. Struggle should be something that's valued, not something that we view as being just for incompetent people"

Already, clinicians are seeing the first casualties of the self esteem movement entering therapy. In a 2011 Atlantic article, US psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb reported that many young adults - largely from happy, loving, advantaged homes - are feeling confused, anxious and empty due to over-protective parenting that focused too much on happiness and shielded them from adversity. Thrust into the real world, even minor setbacks become catastrophic.

Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay, who addresses these issues in his latest book, The Good Life: What Makes a Life Worth Living, says we must look beyond the pursuit of success and happiness as life aspirations.

He believes that the self-help movement, which took off in the 1980s as a well-meaning antidote to rising rates of depression in western society - borne out of a rapid and turbulent period of social, economic and technological change - has morphed into a beast that sells happiness as a commodity.

"It's been hijacked by the pop psychology movement to suggest that we've all got to look for positive outcomes, that we've all got to be bright shining optimists and extroverts. It's become an industry - there are conferences about it and a whole spate of books and talk shows and people on the lecture circuit who are feeding this idea that one of our emotions (happiness) is sovereign and that should be our default position."

Instead of viewing happiness as an entitlement, Mackay maintains that a sense of wholeness and meaning is what brings satisfaction. Indeed, he points out that even the Buddhist faith is starting to question the Dalai Lama's long held tenet that the very purpose of life is to seek happiness.

"We have to nurture our relationships, our engagements with other people, our responsibility for other people's wellbeing - that's what nurtures community, and we are sustained by those communities. If we're just going for the easy emotional stuff or the materialist stuff this is actually bad for the life of our community because it nurtures self indulgence, self-centredness and competitiveness," Mackay says. "If we focus only on happiness we're neglecting the richness of the full emotional spectrum and we're overlooking the fact that you couldn't make sense of happiness if you didn't know sadness."

New Zealand psychologist Chris Skellett knows this only too well. His book, When Happiness Is Not Enough, explores how a fulfilling life can only be achieved by balancing being happy in the moment, with a drive towards longer term goals.

He speaks from a position of tragic, lived experience. Last month, his 21-year-old son Henry died suddenly and unexpectedly. Whilst coping with overwhelming grief, his understanding of the importance of the full range of human emotions has never been greater.

"The loss gives you access to a wonderful array of very real human experiences, especially the connection between people,'' Skellett say. ''Sadness is tinged with an incredibly profound depth of appreciation of life. You're acutely aware of what's important. A lot of the things that preoccupied me before seem rather trite and superficial now. Now, I'm much more connected to the little things. I'm much more profoundly moved by music. A walk in the evening just seems like a gift."

- Daily Life

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