How to be happy: stop trying for the perfect life and embrace negative emotions
Studies show that chasing ultimate fulfilment can leave you very unhappy. A psychoanalyst offers advice on the nature of well-being and how we can benefit from a change of perspective
Psychologist and counsellor Dr Michael Eason sees clients every day who are struggling with life.
They may be clinically depressed or have crippling anxiety about a number of issues: work, home life, love, money. They constantly bounce from one stressful situation to the next, unable to find a consistent sense of fulfilment.
Eason says part of the problem is that modern culture has been set up so that people are destined to fail when they try to be happy.
“There’s too much emphasis on happiness,” he says. “You go into a bookstore and there are all these self-help books and it’s setting up unrealistic expectations. Our culture does this, Hollywood does this, we get this unrealistic idea of what happiness is. This is not accurate. This is not what life is about.”
Eason, of the MindnLife practice in Hong Kong, who has been working in psychotherapy since 2005, says life’s purpose should not be trying to obtain an ultimate state of happiness at all costs. He says mankind’s state of being is incredibly multifaceted and the singular pursuit of one emotion is misguided.
He explains part of the problem is that people equate happiness with achieving significant life goals such as getting a promotion or completing a university degree, but often these do not actually result in long-term happiness.
“We’re poor predictors of what will bring future happiness,” he says. “The things that we think will make us happy end up kind of being ‘meh’ or ‘so-so.’”
He says American psychologist Dan Gilbert’s 2006 book Stumbling on Happiness uncovered such things as imagination deceitfulness and cognitive bias when it comes to “affective forecasting”, or the prediction of one’s emotional state in the future. This means we often overvalue the positive effect that life achievements will have on our mental state. That promotion at work or marriage you’ve been planning for months – they may not make you nearly as happy as you think when things come to fruition.
Eason says that it is better to recast goals as desires rather than as fundamental for happiness, an idea that originally came from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Lacan, who died in 1981, said that life goals are inherently desires and that once an object is possessed or goal achieved, the desire vanishes – and so does the drive that accompanied it. This can lead to a sense of emptiness or sadness if not replaced with another desire.
Hongkongers are, in general, far from happy. The territory recently dropped five spots to 76th in the United Nations’ annual world happiness rankings, falling below countries including Pakistan, the Philippines and Libya. And a recent study found that a third of Hong Kong’s young people suffer from stress, anxiety or depression – or a combination of the three – largely due to pressures in school to achieve high marks and get into good post-secondary educational institutes.
Eason says the overuse of social media can also make people very unhappy, especially platforms like Instagram and Facebook. A recent study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that greater use of these sites led to increased negative physical and mental health, and a decrease in overall life satisfaction. Eason says that social media allows people to create avatars which only show life highlights, thus creating an illusion of happy, fulfilled people to the outside world.
“I have clients who will come see me and they’ve looked up someone they used to date, or they’re sitting alone on Friday night, and everyone else’s lives seem so much better,” he says. “These kinds of social media apps are actually increasing people’s sense of unhappiness. They’re giving a false illusion that everyone else’s life is happy and glamorous, but it just isn’t true. It’s a brand that we show to the world – we show the positive parts of ourselves, but that’s not the full story.”
Eason says he works at teaching people to care less about other people’s opinions of them. “So many people worry about this so much, so to devalue it can be a huge step for those who are wrapped up in what other people think about them.”
He also tries to get clients to reframe negatives as positive, for example by recasting the word “selfish” as a positive one.
“The reality is that selfishness is actually very compassionate because when you’re your best self, your best employee, husband, wife, father, whatever that may be, it’s a domino effect that always starts from the self. By taking care of yourself it’s going to ripple out into your whole life.”
Another important thing is to “normalise” negative feelings such as depression, anxiety and sadness. Eason says not trying to avoid them, and realising that “we’re all sort of suffering together”, is a good way to feel less alone in the world. “Misery loves company, and if that helps us, then it’s not a bad thing.”
He thinks many Hongkongers just ask for too much from life, and that setting more realistic expectations can be helpful.
“Wanting too much happiness is unrealistic. Life has difficulties – this is the nature of existence, that life is inherently suffering. Bad things happen to good people all the time, but we move on and we move forward.”
He says the idea of “post-traumatic growth” has helped a lot of his clients lately. This is the idea of recasting a bad life experience as one that will lead to a greater self, making it easier to endure the negative aspects of life.
He also recommends swapping the word happiness for something else, or to give it a different meaning – one not as supercharged.
“I always try to differentiate between happiness and joy,” he says. “Happiness is kind of this fleeting temporary sensation – you can have a fillet mignon and be happy. Joy is kind of an internal and consistent state, a feeling of well-being as you move through life.”