12 Things Being a Therapist Taught Me About Happiness
Over the course of my career as a therapist, I've counseled thousands of people, which in a lot of ways amounts to a giant research project. People come to me when they're depressed or otherwise struggling -- whatever their specific issues, they generally hope to "get better." In short, they want what most people want: to be happy.
Through my work, I've come to notice the themes that characterize unhappy people, and the changes that move them from feeling stuck in their own shit to enjoying life. While everyone is different, and happiness is by no means an easily achievable goal, I've learned that there are certain traits happy people share.
Happy people realize that the gods aren't conspiring against them, and only themSomething I often hear from depressed clients is, "Why does this always happen to me?” or, “What have I done to deserve this? Why can't I be like (insert happy person's name here)?"
Yet challenge and change are guaranteed. Debt, illness, job loss, heartbreak, stress, unexpected death -- it’s inevitable that life will throw you some or all of these things. Happy people realize this. They know that everything is constantly in flux, but they’re open to uncertainty, discomfort, and change.
They have solid, deep relationships, and aren't concerned with accumulating acquaintancesWhether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, humans are all social beings who need connection to thrive. This means real, live friendships, where you actually hear each other’s voice (and even spend time together in person!). Happy people's friendships and romantic relationships are based on connection, not money or status.
This doesn't mean you have to come from a supportive family you love unconditionally in order to be happy! It just means you should seek out relationships in which you feel safe, respected, and accepted, in spite of your imperfections. If your family provides that, great; if not, seek it elsewhere.
They actually derive meaning from their day-to-day livesHappy people don't live for the weekend. I mean, they like the weekend and all. They're down for sleeping in and having no set obligations, but they don't start dreading Monday come Sunday morning.
One of my clients, "Greg," was your prototypical “finance guy.” Bottle service every Saturday, eyeing a Maserati as his next purchase, taking a different beautiful woman to a different destination once a month. Yet amidst all the glamour and things, Greg was depressed. Largely contributing to his unhappiness? The lack of purpose he felt. Greg realized that depression was telling him he yearned for fulfillment. He remembered coaching and playing rugby in college, which was also the last time he remembered feeling happy. Instead of buying the Maserati, Greg co-founded a coaching academy with an old teammate. Three years later, he doesn’t have the money to spend on bottle service every Saturday night, but he sure as hell doesn’t miss it.
They don't stress too much over the future, and don't whine too much about the pastLiving for the next accomplishment or purchase is like being a heroin addict living for your next hit (well, maybe not quite, but almost). Finish school! Get the promotion! Get married! Buy a house! Have kids! Buy a summer home! Buy another summer home! Renovate the bathroom! Chill the fuck out and take some of today in. You can plan for the future... just don't live in it. Similarly, it's useful to learn from the past, but don't spend your days lamenting about "what if" or "if only."
They treat their bodies wellIt doesn't matter how many positive thoughts you have if you're living off chips, candy, and booze, then spend all your off-hours watching TV. You may think it's only a minor factor in how you feel, but food is a key player in mental health. Accept it.
They're cool with being emotional, but don't let their feelings control their whole livesIt's true that some feelings can be irrational. You don't always want to act on your anger or jealousy or anxiety in the way you want to, otherwise your boss might have a few black eyes and you'd be doing a stint for felony assault. But cutting yourself off from your feelings entirely isn't a good solution, either. You'll wind up feeling like a shell of yourself.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture where we believe painful feelings are a sign of weakness, or failure, or pathology. But if you can acknowledge that painful feelings have utility (sadness means you've lost something you care about; anxiety means "prepare," anger means you've been mistreated, etc.), you can listen to them and act based on them in a way that'll make you happy, and you won't have to feel like you've given up a part of yourself just to avoid an "undesirable" emotion.
They're able to get lost in moments of funRemember when you were growing up and your dad said you should play now because when you were grown up life would be work? Was that just me? Sorry dad, but you’re wrong. Finding an activity that makes you forget about everything going on around you -- basically, something you think is fun -- brings you into the present so you can actually enjoy life.
Think about what makes you get lost in the moment -- what do you consider "fun"? If you’re conflicted because you think it’s “unproductive,” know it’ll actually make you more efficient the rest of the time.
They know that failure is, in fact, an optionWhen I first start working with clients, they almost always have a critical inner voice -- maybe it was how their parents raised them, or it developed after years of experiencing bullying or an abusive partner, or they just got into the habit of beating themselves up because at one point it was motivating.
The problem with this is that old cliche: it works until it doesn’t. Eventually, it becomes the voice of anxiety and depression. Happy people realize the most important relationship they’ll ever have in life is the one with the voice in their head; they treat themselves like they would a good friend or family member -- with expectations, of course, but with understanding, too.
Happy people also permit themselves to make mistakes. They don’t go around trying to fuck up, but they accept that it happens and are supportive (and, at times, amused) rather than punishing in response. If you live by the mantra that “failure is not an option,” you might wind up miserable.
They're grateful, but not in an irritating, #blessed sort of wayGratitude isn’t about watching Oprah and blessing every meal. It’s about seeing the whole picture and focusing on the positive stuff. Happy people recognize that the good stuff in their lives really could've gone differently. Sure, they could've inherited millions, but they also could've been born into war or extreme poverty. They see the world through a lens of appreciation and find humor in the tough stuff, but don't need to sugarcoat their lives with a veneer of public gratitude when things aren't so rosy.
They may compare themselves to others sometimes, but don't paralyze themselves through comparisonComparison can have utility. Upward comparison (comparing yourself to someone you admire) can help you see where you want to be. Downward comparison may help you feel grateful. But comparison can also cause a great deal of pain. It can breed inadequacy, jealousy, and hatred, among other uncomfortable feelings. Happy people know there's enough room for all of us (for now). They don’t expend energy wishing they were someone else.
Yeah, but HOW DO YOU DO THIS? Well, you've gotta be curious, compassionate, and nonjudgmental. None of these abilities come naturally, so you have to learn (damn), whether it's through therapy, or some other practice you find useful for igniting these skills, like yoga or meditation. But it's really up to you.
They're accepting of reality without being resigned to itIt's not that they're complacent or passive. They still desire growth and change. They don't say, "I'm glad this happened," if they don't get a job they really wanted, but they also don't torture themselves by being angry about their reality longer than necessary. They accept that they missed a connection or got dumped. They accept their less-than-perfect body or student debt. They realize that beating up on themselves or cursing the universe generally doesn’t make things better.
They realize happiness is found (mostly) withinKinda tough if you're already unhappy, huh? It takes work, sure, but happy people know media isn't an accurate depiction of reality. This doesn't mean all happy people live in the bush and reject cultural norms, but they aren't controlled by them. They don't obsess over watches, cars, handbags, or other status symbols that really don't change what's on the inside. They realize that ultimately, they're the ones who control their choices, how they treat themselves, and how they react to the shitty stuff.
Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, and get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC is a psychotherapist and wellness coach who's still working on the whole constant happiness thing. Read more from her at OneShrinksPerspective.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow her on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.