capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

Happiness & Brushing Your Teeth

What are your goals for therapy?

Client shrugs. Looks down at the ground, uncertain with herself, uncertain with everything around her, nervous and clearly uncomfortable in her own skin. I don’t know. I just want to be happy. 

Every therapist in every office has heard this answer at some point. We are all on some perpetual quest for the euphoric happiness promised if we were only just a bit funnier, prettier, skinnier, or better at our jobs, marriage, or school. Happiness sits high on the societal pedestal, and we are willing to pretty much sacrifice ourselves to taste just a sliver of it.

Really, long-term happiness is more of a quiet whisper. Really, most of us misinterpret the craving for having a sense of purpose, meaning, and contentment for just wanting happiness.

The 3-Ingredient Good Life Recipe extends beyond happiness. In fact, most of what makes us mentally healthy has nothing to do with just happiness. We benefit from discipline and hard work. We benefit from obstacles and hardships. We benefit from delaying gratification.

As I learned more about this client, I discovered that she really only cared about being happy.  Nothing else. She believed in living life to the fullest with the YOLO twist. If it didn’t feel good, she didn’t want to do it. If it wasn’t euphoric, it wasn’t worth it. Fair enough. Unfortunately, her perpetual chase for the pinnacle of happiness landed her in crippling debt, alcoholism, and continuous feelings of underachievement and incompetence.

She interpreted happiness as Just feeling good. And, her feel-good threshold tolerance continued to increase until only substances and sex brought her joy. She had about a 20-80 ratio, where 20% of the time, life was 10/10, and the other 80% existed in a 0/10 vacuum. Instead of living in life’s moments, she was chasing better moments, and better moments eventually ended, resulting in soul-crushing shame and guilt.

I had to burst her bubble that life would not always be a 10/10, and that she wasn’t doing anything wrong if she felt sad or scared or angry. I had to teach her that people typically express only highlight reels on Facebook and that media tries to sell us a scripted story that, if only, we had this one external thing, we could achieve true perfection. I had to convince her that some days might only be 4s, 5s, or 6s on the spectrum of 0-10, and that she could still live a meaningful and enjoyable life.

Life is a pendulum of balance; it ebbs and flows, as emotions move through our lives. We cannot be stagnant, and happiness is no different. While striving for a good life is essential to our mental well-beings and happiness be cultivated, this does not stay constant, and we need to accept that.

To be human is to experience pain. To experience pain is to grow strength, wisdom, and connection with ourselves and the world around us. All emotions are necessary. If we are only chasing happiness, we miss the long-term gifts that come from heartbreak, fear, and discomfort. We miss the benefits of accepting the present moment, for all its worth, and soaking in whatever just is. We miss the chance to fully experience life, and fully experiencing life actually allows for the greater absorption of happiness!

The quest to total happiness is just another quest for perfectionism. It’s both unattainable and unhealthy. Sometimes, we just have to do stuff to put us in a better position for even better stuff. I like to use the metaphor of brushing my teeth. Does it bring me total joy? No. Do I do it? Yes. Why? Because the short-term task of having to do something mundane outweighs the long-term consequence of poor hygiene, tooth pain, and costly dental bills.

If true, euphoric happiness was the motive for everything we did, how often would YOU brush your teeth?