Unhappiness is normal: Why the pursuit of happiness can make us sad

It’s not uncommon for a client, when initially asked what their goal for therapy is, for them to say ‘I just want to be happy’. Or for some to say they believe they ‘should’ be happy, and yet they are not, so they are somehow failing at life. For practitioners of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT), these misconceptions are to be questioned, challenged and replaced with a more rational and helpful view of happiness.

This (irrational) belief that we all just ‘should’ be happy, or that happiness is somehow an end in itself is a common one, and for us humans, also a relatively new one. The ‘pursuit of happiness’ is a largely 20th century idea. The increasing focus on the individual, and the achievement of our individual dreams and goals has led to that most toxic of toxicities: toxic positivity.

We’ve all seen or heard examples of toxic positivity. From posters demanding ‘good vibes only’ to friends telling us to ‘cheer up, move on, turn that frown upside down’ etc. As anyone confronted by these platitudes when feeling anything less than positive knows, not only are they facile, they are also, more often than not, counterproductive.

Humans did not evolve to be happy. We evolved to survive and breed. That’s why we also experience emotions like anxiety, concern, anger, defensiveness and contentment. Happiness is a natural part of our emotional lives, but still just a part. And whilst our human lives are now so much more than simply surviving or breeding (if we even choose to), it is still unnatural to expect only happiness, and to be so dismissive and unwelcoming of everything else.

REBT believes that our lives are made up of the full range of emotions: from the most joyful moments of happiness to the darkest moments of despair, with everything in between. We understand that an emotional reaction to an event is natural. Should a person experience setbacks, losses or failures, it is natural for us to feel negative emotions such as sadness, frustration or self-doubt. These only truly become a problem if a person becomes ‘stuck’ in this emotional state and it slips into depression, anger or self-damning. And that’s when REBT does such a good job of helping restore balance.

But some people can erroneously believe that any experiences of negative emotions, or simply not being happy all the time, is a sign of greater distress or failure on their part. Our job, as REBT therapist, is to be an antidote to toxic positivity. To let them know that sometimes, unhappiness is normal. In fact, most of the time, feeling generally ‘neutral’ or ‘just OK’ is absolutely fine.

These normal ups, downs and averages are the bread and butter of life, and the very things that make the birthday cake of happiness so exceptionally wonderful when we do, from time to time, experience it.

Nick Jones
REBT Therapist

* Humans aren’t designed to be happy – Rafael Euba via The Conversation

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