Here is the last chapter from Making Happiness. I hope it serves you well.
The Big Picture
We all want to be happy. We want happy relationships. We want our children to be happy in their lives. It is unfortunate then that the places we usually invest our time and energy will not bring the happiness we seek. Money, power, fame, and other sources of pride and security will not make us happy. Similarly, the seemingly more noble desires for marriage or children, are unlikely to help. While there is nothing inherently wrong in seeking any of these things, it is most fruitful for us to realize that beyond the basic necessities of life, our objective circumstances do little to promote our happiness.
The happiest among us are instead distinguished by being responsively alive. They are accepting and expressive of their feelings and desires, and similarly accepting of the feelings and desires of others, allowing for close, satisfying relationships. They are able to relate to their distressing feelings in ways that allow more equanimity, and that do not get in the way of them actively pursuing what they want in life. Their example teaches us that while we will not find happiness in the places we usually seek it, we can find it through becoming more alive and connected with ourselves, with others, and with the world.
The culprit that steals our aliveness, our self-acceptance, and taints our relationships with others, is trauma. This trauma usually occurs early in our lives, before we can even remember, and can involve events that appear benign. That which does not kill us does not make us stronger; it still kills part of us. To cope with the overwhelming, intolerable feelings of trauma, we must blot them out, we must avoid them. We desperately try to keep feelings of fear, shame, and pain at bay, but our joy, pleasure, and love are inadvertent casualties of this avoidance. It is this deadening, this inevitable suppression and shutting down of our feelings, desires, emotions, and impulses, that costs us the very aliveness and connectedness that we so crave.
If our unhappiness is ultimately due to trauma that we experienced early in our lives, it may seem that, short of using a time machine, we are doomed to be prisoners of our childhoods. Fortunately, it is not actually our long-ago trauma that keeps us trapped but rather how we learned to treat ourselves, and others. We understandably reacted to the intrusive fear, shame, and pain by desperately trying to avoid them. As adults, however, this avoidance of our feelings is tantamount to neglect and perpetuates our distress. Beyond attempts to suppress, deny, and denigrate our feelings, our efforts to avoid them necessarily include maneuvers that are self-abusive or self-hating. We torment ourselves with worry under the illusion that our worry is somehow helping us to avoid some feared catastrophe. We are harsh and berating towards ourselves in a fruitless attempt to stave off intrusive shame. We keep our hearts guarded to avoid the pain of possible rejection, at the cost of the very emotional closeness we seek.
The solution, as simple as it is difficult, is to stop avoiding our feelings and to instead greet each of them with wise, compassionate presence. We can then courageously venture into the situations and relationships that offer what we want, knowing that we can tolerate the feelings that will inevitably be triggered.
You now understand that whenever we experience fear, shame, or pain, they always involve intrusive feelings. We do not need to avoid any of them and instead are best served by actively listening to them. If we are scared, then our fear warrants our compassionate presence and acknowledgment. It also warrants the calm awareness that our wisdom allows, knowing that everything is okay, even the reality that we will die some day. We can similarly meet feelings of shame or guilt with the same compassionate presence and acknowledgment, along with the wise awareness that we don’t deserve to feel badly about ourselves. Our pain warrants our compassionate presence, and acknowledgement that we are indeed hurting. Our wisdom allows us to open our hearts to our pain, and to grieve our losses, aware that we are also grieving our pain from long ago. To become truly happy we must realize that all of our feelings are okay, that we needn’t be distressed by them. It is through buying into the distress, the apparent urgency and need for frantic action, that we indulge in avoidance of our feelings, taking ourselves away from ourselves. To take ourselves away from ourselves at the very times we most need wise, compassionate presence is the essence of the neglectful mistreatment that keeps us unhappy.
It is the most wonderful coincidence that the effort we put into developing compassionate presence with ourselves allows us to offer what is most needed to our children and in our relationships. It is the same quality of compassionate presence that will foster the most secure attachment in our children and insulate them from trauma. It is our compassionate presence that those closest to us most want, that will most foster our experience of mutual connection, and that will most promote their healing and happiness. Whether with our children or in our relationships, however, any “wisdom” that we have to offer needs to take a backseat to our listening. We can offer them our view and our concerns, but must err on the side of leaving space for their own wisdom to shine through. Generations of couples therapists beseech you to hear this message. Our partners want us to listen to their concerns and problems much more than to solve them. Similarly, if we simply listen and acknowledge our children’s experience and difficulties, they will often come up with their own wise solutions. To prematurely offer them our “wisdom” deprives them of this, and deprives us of witnessing it.
This book has offered perspective on what this compassionate presence sounds like when offered to ourselves, our children, and others. Knowing the principles is, however, woefully insufficient for applying them. If we want to get good at being happy we must “practice happiness”. As a result of our early trauma we understandably developed many “bad habits”, our patterns of avoidance. As with any skill, such as learning a sport or playing a musical instrument, it is only through practice that we can develop facility with the “good habits”.
Following thousands of years of wisdom traditions and decades of scientific research, I encourage daily practice of happiness. As discussed earlier, this takes the form of meditation in which we are simply compassionately present with whatever we are experiencing. It is profound valuable to remember at least once every day that we have everything we need to be happy, and that our happiness comes from treating ourselves well. We can then take this way of relating to ourselves into our days, with the intention of offering more of this presence to ourselves, our children, and others. It is also valuable to make a point of checking in daily with those closest to us, particularly those we live with, and offering them some minutes of our listening and acknowledgment.
No matter how good our intentions though, we will inevitably fall back into our more defended ways of relating to ourselves and others. Our patterns of avoidance were shaped by our desperate need to avoid trauma-related feelings, and we learned them well. Indeed, it is a tall order to learn any new skill in the middle of a game, so we must necessarily set aside time for more extended practice when we can focus on what we are trying to do differently. I encourage people to take time every week for more prolonged, deeper presence with ourselves, with our children, and with our intimate partners. This was described in the earlier chapters as deeper listening to ourselves, deeper communication with our partners, and special playtime with our children.
It may strike some as indulgent to attend to our own happiness and well-being when the world has so many problems that need solving. Although this is the topic of another book, I suggest that any solving of world problems that neglects our own happiness is doomed to failure. When the insecurity of our egos is quelled by owning a big vehicle, the consequences to the environment will come in a distant second place. When improbable threats of terrorism trigger intrusive fear we will happily sacrifice our freedoms and privacy for illusions of security, and live in self-made prisons while proclaiming our glorious freedom. If we are reluctant to open our hearts to those who are closest to us, we will not open them to mistreated animals, to people who struggle in poverty, or to those whose emotional pain leaves them considering suicide. As we explore the problems of the world, we find that they are all contributed to by people’s alienation, by our lack of experienced connection to ourselves, to others, and to the natural world. Therefore, if we are not actively making happiness for ourselves, in our relationships, and for our children, we will necessarily be part of the problem more than contributing to any solution.
In closing, I emphasize that I am not asking you to do anything. Indeed, it will not be of much help to practice what I have described here because someone is telling you to, because you think it would be the “right” thing to do, or because you think you would be a good or better person for doing so. If any of these are your reasons, you will not get far. The only motivation that will really serve you is an unwavering determination to become happier in your life, and a desire for those around you to be happy too. If you are clear that you want this, and are persistent in applying what you have learned here, you will find the sweet rewards of genuine happiness well worth your effort.