It’s not easy to be positive when things aren’t going your way. If you’re feeling under the weather, your job’s getting you down, you’re arguing with your partner or the cost of your MOT’s just cleaned you out until next Christmas nobody could blame you for feeling down. But have you ever stopped to think it might not be the situation itself that’s the problem, but the way you approach it?
In my experience people tend to fall into two main categories. In the first category are those who have a fundamental appreciation that life doesn’t always run smoothly. In the second are those who tend to feel affronted at the very notion things might not pan out as they would wish them to. It doesn’t take a genius to work out which of these two types of people would cope better if life took a turn for the worse.
To give an example (and cite the inspiration for this post), a few days ago I saw an acquaintance post on Facebook that they didn’t know what they had done wrong in life to deserve the run of bad luck they’d had. This jarred with me. Why, I wondered, did they assume they must have done something wrong? Why didn’t they instead realise that in life the rough comes with the smooth? After all, if there was no rough what would we have to compare the smooth to? How would we know that smooth equalled good?
Following on from the above observations I’d hazard a guess that most people, when asked what they want most in life, would put ‘to be happy’ somewhere on the list. And why not have that aspiration? Because, argues Dr Russ Harris in his book, The Happiness Trap, it is often the pursuit of happiness itself that makes us miserable. Based on the principles of a new mindfulness-based model known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), the book attempts to help the reader accept what is out of their personal control, rather than employing exhausting and ultimately ineffective control strategies to suppress the feelings that negative events instil in them.
ACT breaks mindfulness into three categories; defusion, acceptance and contact with the present moment. Defusion is the letting go of unhelpful thoughts, beliefs or memories. Acceptance is making room for painful feelings and letting them come and go without a struggle. Contact with the present moment is, quite simply, learning to engage fully with the here and now.
In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Professor Daniel Gilbert takes a more scientific approach to the study of happiness, postulating that the human brain is so preoccupied with the present that it often fails to correctly imagine the future. This, he claims, results in the overestimation of almost every life event. When we worry about how something will pan out, therefore, we are effectively wasting a lot of energy. In other words, we are trying to please our future selves at the expense of the ones that live in the present. Not very clever, is it? By helping us to understand errors in our own mental forecasting Gilbert brings us a step closer to true happiness, in the here and now.
So next time you catch yourself burying a painful emotion to get back to your perceived state of ‘happiness,’ or imagining the finer details of a future event, remember that to achieve true happiness you might be better off letting the emotions wash over you and trying to be fully present in the moment.