Perspective on happiness from counselling and psychotherapy - Embodied Living


According to a 2017 article in The Independent we are happiest in our 50s, the ‘nifty 50s’ they call it.

It seems the over-50’s are happier, wealthier and more carefree than they ever have been. Personally I think that ‘wealth’ has a part to play, financial freedom can contribute much towards this chimerical notion of happiness.

The survey, which did look at 50,000 people, attributed the happiness of the over 50s to their taking up new hobbies, travelling and having a gratifying sex life. Which might explain why they also felt 10 years younger than their actual age.

The common theme was that they seemed to be having more time for personal/leisure activities.

Yet in 2015 the Daily Mail reckoned we make a turning point in our happiness at the age of 34. At this age, according to the research quoted in that article, we are happy because we got married, had kids, and made it in our careers. The research surveyed 2,000 people over 40, so the ‘happiness’ in question was based on people reflecting back on their life looking at moments in time. So, in many ways, the whole methodology of the research may have been different to the 2017 survey, and contributed to defining a certain concept of ‘happiness’. Either that or a lot has changed in two years!

But let’s think again about the concept of ‘happiness’. For happiness is a state, it is about peak moments in time, and by very definition it fluctuates, and does not last. Happiness is about having, it is about what we can gain and therefore is not sustainable. Personally, I don’t think it is something to which we should be setting our sights.

The very word ‘happiness’ is a subjective concept, dependent on having (something or someone) and is not sustainable . If you look in some of the readers’ comments on the earlier Daily Mail piece, this is outlined beautifully. For example:

nugget80, Hemel Hempstead, United Kingdom: “Have to say I’m way happier in my thirties than I was previously. Something to do with meeting my perfect man (after being married and divorced in early twenties) graduating from uni and getting my dream job, buying the house I’ve lived in for 13 years and going back to tbe baby years with my youngest who is now 3. Wouldn’t want to pinpoint a year but I will be 35 in 3 weeks and I wouldn’t change a thing in ny life.”

Elle, Dublin: “We’re a little smug, aren’t we? Enjoy it while it lasts because life has a habit of shaking us up just as we think we are getting comfortable. And a lot can happen in 3 weeks.”

What we have makes us happy, and what we have, inevitably, will not last. People leave us or die, children let us down or leave home, houses are repossessed, jobs are made redundant. And what about those of us who don’t have kids, haven’t made it in our careers or are single? Is there no hope for happiness?

There are practical ways of becoming happy. Neuroscience shows us that the emotion of happiness resides in the limbic system in the left hemisphere of our brain (the left pre-frontal cortex). So if we do things that stimulate this side of the brain, we can stimulate the emotion of happiness: change our thinking to be more positive; do mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation; have fun and social interaction; enjoy pleasurable activities doing something to lose ourselves in the moment, spending time with loved ones, celebrating and appreciating accomplishment, pursuing meaning in its many forms; physical exercise.

But I want to introduce a more sustainable concept, that of contentment. Contentment is a more continuous state, a state of being, rather than a peak experience or moment in time.

As Diogenes said: “People have the most, when they are most content with the least.”

Well blow me down. This seems to be the opposite of happiness! How come?

I have worked with over a hundred people over a thousand hours, with problems including anxiety, depression, trauma, fatigue, low self esteem, OCD and from all walks of life from the unemployed, to managing directors, housewives and high flying lawyers or policemen. When I ask them what they want, they often say ‘to be happy’ but then I ask them “for what purpose happiness, what does your being happy achieve for you, in your life”, their answers are consistent: I am me; I am whole; I am the real potential me; I am complete, balanced, whole; I am John, without boasting or apology, I am just me; I am accepting of all parts of me.

Perhaps its time to re-evaluate what happiness means in our life? It’s a shame we don’t learn this in school, but it is never too late.

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