Why Happiness is Overrated… and How to Stop Chasing Your Tail
By Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, Chief Happiness Officer, VETgirl
In today’s VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, VETgirl’s Chief Happiness Officer, Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW reviews why happiness is overrated. How does this apply to us in the veterinary field?
It’s commonplace to see someone promoting the idea that we can do something/buy something/indulge something in order to feel happier. These messages – and the products within them – offer quick hits that may make us feel better momentarily. However, the gains are rarely sustained and the inevitable let-down comes when real life sans massage/new shoes/day off sinks in. Sound familiar? Get in line.
Day to day practice – in fact, day to day life -- is full of challenges, disappointments, mistakes and missteps (some days more than others). Happiness is not the lack of these things, nor does it arise when we do something that gives us the quick bit of release or relief. As such, I think putting all the weight on “happiness” is missing the boat, and chasing “happy” can become an exercise in frustration. When we chase happiness, we are unlikely to catch anything more than a mouthful of fur.
Happiness is an important emotion – but it’s a fleeting one. Importantly, it is also just one of many emotions that indicate the capacity to be well… and wellness is what we ought to be cultivating if we want to live full, engaged, satisfying lives. Wellness is an active process that encompasses the fullness of the human experience – including, but not limited to, emotional, physical, spiritual, occupational, and social health. And wellness does not occur only when we are absolved of negative emotions and experiences. In fact, true wellness emerges when we engage life’s difficulties -- full of angst and struggle -- without being undone by them.
Knowing a little bit about how the human brain works, I’m aware that we have some built-in barriers to overcome on the path to being well. One of them is the negativity bias, which predisposes us to privileging what is bad (or potentially harmful) over what is good in any given situation. If the brain has Velcro for bad experiences and Teflon for good experiences (which it kind of does), you can imagine that anything that is potentially harmful or risky will inherently be given more weight in our day to day life. Likewise, it is more difficult to find the good in anything that challenges us, or for us to remember the good things that happen in the course of any given day.
The second barrier we must contend with is the tendency to habituate to good things and to overestimate future pleasure – a double-edged sword. If a co-worker brings me a morning mocha once, I am thrilled. If that gift becomes a pattern, however, I will naturally derive less pleasure from it. (Thanks, brain. You are not my friend.) Additionally, humans – a forward-looking species – tend to believe that, “Things will be better when…” (Insert you own set of beliefs here). It’s not that we shouldn’t set goals that will make us feel happier, healthier and in control. It’s that focusing only on those goals (or even on the goals over which we have little control – like having that toxic co-worker FINALLY quit) prevents us from fully appreciating what we have in front of us… including that mocha.
Despite the barriers, here’s the cool thing about being human: we are also capable of being in the presence of difficulty – even situations full of pain – while still holding something positive in one hand. Humans can experience multiple emotions and hold wildly conflicting thoughts, simultaneously. As such, I can have a rotten day at work, losing multiple patients and having numerous charged conversations with clients, all while being grateful for my amazing colleagues, my patient partner, and a good walk with my dog. The trick is here is to cultivate thoughts and behaviors that help me to balance out the difficulties in my life with the experiences and insights that make me feel well despite them.
So what might we do instead of chasing happiness? While happiness is wonderful (more happy is, indeed, GOOD), we benefit from also reaching for healthy relationships, engaging work, intellectual challenge, financial freedom, supportive networks, and physical vibrancy. We can cultivate intentional behaviors (this means the choice is yours) that enhance our ability to withstand the knocks and bumps and inevitable face-plants of daily life – and increase our capacity to rise stronger, all while finding something that keeps us moving forward with our eyes, ears, and hearts wide open. Yes, it’s possible. Stay tuned as the VETgirl team focuses on making wellness a reality – for you and your team – in 2019.