The Other Side of Happiness

coastal scene

As a mental health counselor, I’ve often worked with depressed individuals. Regardless of whether the individual is a child, adolescent or adult, I often play a little word game with them to help me get a better understanding of their depression. The word game goes something like this… “I’m going to ask you a few very simple questions and then I’m going to ask you a difficult question. OK?” The person often responds in the affirmative. “OK, what is the opposite of hot?” They rather quickly respond “cold.” “And what is the opposite of ‘up’?” to which they respond “down.” And then I ask, “What is the opposite of depression?” to which their eyes go up left, down right, up right, down left…They are thinking and they do not easily come up with an answer. After a short while, well over ninety percent say “happiness.” I’ve asked the same kind of question for other emotions. What is the opposite of anger? What is the opposite of sadness? What is the opposite of frustration? What is the opposite of confused? What is the opposite of anxious? What is the opposite of miserable? What is the opposite of scared? And guess what the answer is? Happiness. Happiness is the opposite of just about any negative emotion.

Our mind seems to be built in such a way that much of our meanings in life are made by contrasts and comparisons. We understand things as they relate (or don’t’ relate) to other things. Opposites are the ultimate contrast. Hot water has meaning in relation to cold water. Daylight is defined in relation to night time. Man gains definition in relation to woman, children to adults, students to teachers….And, more importantly, these opposites are not isolated from one another, they are connected just like the heads and tails of a coin. Our positive and negative emotions are like two sides of a coin. If a person is feeling depressed, they are capable of feeling the opposite of that, whatever that feeling is for that person, because depression is connected to that feeling. Granted, that connection is way over on the other side. But, nevertheless, it is connected.

The problem is that so many of us have an impoverished emotional vocabulary we are not able to label the opposite of our negative emotion correctly. For example, let’s say you are complaining of boredom. You are asked what, for you, is the opposite of boredom and you say happiness. But, it’s far more likely that excitement is the opposite of boredom but you simply do not have the awareness of a proper vocabulary to verbalize that feeling. It’s as if we have all been hypnotized to believe that happiness is the answer to all of our woes; happiness is the one panacea for all of our mental problems. But, there is a much greater wealth of positive emotions and it’s a shame to be limited to something as conventional as happiness – whatever that might mean to you.

In an effort to help the reader develop a more thorough vocabulary of emotional states, the following is a partial list of words that represent positive emotions. Affectionate, alert, amazed, amused, aroused, blissful, calm, carefree, cheerful, comfortable, confident, contented, curious, delighted, eager, ecstatic, elated, enchanted, energetic, enthusiastic, excited, fascinated, glad, glorious, grateful, inquisitive, inspired, intrigued, jubilant, mellow, mirthful, optimistic, perky, pleased, proud, radiant, refreshed, relaxed, satisfied, secure, serene, splendid, stimulated, thankful, thrilled, tranquil, trusting, upbeat and wonderful.

There’s an equally rich list of negative emotions as well. Afraid, agitated, aloof, angry, anguished, annoyed, anxious, apathetic, ashamed, bitter, dejected, depressed, despondent, discouraged, disgusted, distressed, disturbed, dull, embarrassed, exhausted, fearful, frightened, frustrated, furious, gloomy, guilty, helpless, horrified, hostile, impatient, indifferent, irritated, jealous, lazy, lethargic, lonely, mad, miserable, morose, mournful nervous, perplexed, pessimistic, reluctant, sad, scared, terrified, woeful and worried.

Now, if you were to be asked “what is the opposite of embarrassed?” you might be able to respond with something a little more thoughtful than merely “happiness.”

The Self Correcting Family

family at sunset

Parents often bring their child (or children) to a counselor or therapist to help “fix” behavioral problems exhibited by the child. These behaviors could be some form of conduct or adjustment disorder, general disobedience, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, relationship issues or any number of psychosomatic complaints. Although this is likely a good step to take, parents need to realize that a child’s misbehavior is more often than not a symptom of a family dysfunction. That is, problematic behavior on the part of a child, or adolescent, can be viewed as a message that the whole family system is in need of examination. The child is just the one acting out to bring attention to the fact that there is a “systems problem.” Parents take their child to a counselor/therapist and say “fix my child.” A much better approach would be for the family to go to a counselor and say “fix us.”

A family is a system. A system is a collection of parts that act together. Systems tend to be self regulating. There is a mechanism which ensures a system will operate within a certain limits. The technical term for this mechanism is “homeostasis.” It’s much like a thermostat set to a specific temperature. If the temperature is set to 70 degrees and it starts to get too cold, the heater kicks on to raise the temperature. If it starts to get too hot, the cooler kicks in to bring the temperature down. In human terms it works like this: let’s say a student is accustomed to getting C’s on their report card. Their personal thermostat is set for average. If the student should start to get above average A’s or B’s the thermostat kicks in and causes the grades to go back down to average C’s. Likewise, if the student starts to get below average D’s and F’s, the thermostat kicks in and efforts are put forth which raises the grade to the status quo of C. The family system also has a homeostatic function and every member of the family works to maintain that status quo. It is for this reason that behavior change in any one family member is difficult because the family system as a whole will tend to resist the change in that one member because the change in that one member can disrupt the established family system which strives to maintain its status quo through homeostasis.

As an example, consider a traditional nuclear family with two teenagers in which one is depressed and antisocial and the other is outgoing and friendly. The father is a busy professional and the mother is a busy homemaker with a part time job. The depressed teenager is labeled as having a problem. But, in some way, the family system is not only generating that behavior but is also supporting it. What does the family system, as a whole, gain from this behavior? That is the question a family therapist would explore, as opposed to focusing entirely on the depressed teenager. Because the family system is maintaining a depressed member as one of its components, the family system itself needs to change, not the single component. Attempts to change a single component within a family system without adjusting the thermostat within the family system as a whole often results in failed attempts to change the component. A family member can exhibit improvements in therapy and outside the home, but once that family member returns home, the homeostatic functions within the family system exert tremendous pressure to get back to the status quo.

It is said that a system is more than the sum of its parts. It is also said that when two people communicate there is actually six people; there is each person, how each person views the other person and how each person views themselves. In a family of four, there are many more than 4 present. Family systems communication can be very complex. Behavior problems within a family system are really not problems at all but rather signals from the system itself that the system itself needs to make some changes. The family system is not only self regulating but also self correcting. Rather than looking at any one person in the family as having a problem, look at that person as a voice of the system asking for help.



Fight or Flight

Hawaiian Fern


For eons, the human organism has been honed and perfected to respond effectively and appropriately to any perceived sense of threat or attack. In modern language, this effective and appropriate response is called the ‘fight or flight response.’ In lay terms, this means that when we feel threatened or attacked, our first line of defense is generally to either fight back, or run. We have likely experienced this at some time in our lives. Our fight response, however, may be hampered by the conditioning of our upbringing and our society. Having been taught that fighting is wrong, we may get frustrated, angry or irritable. We may fight in subtle ways such as passive aggressive behaviors or in not so subtle ways by throwing out language meant to hurt and harm the other person. There can be many ways to fight back. The flight response is often more common, safer, and many times considered the wiser. When a child is bullied in school, prevailing wisdom suggests the child leave, which is, essentially, the flight response.

The fight or flight response can happen quickly. But, there is another initial and very immediate response which is a precursor to the fight or flight response and that is the freeze response. At the very instant of a perceived threat or attack, there is a moment, or sometimes longer, in which we are frozen; in a mild and temporary state of shock. Like the proverbial deer in the headlights, we are immobilized. It is only after that initial freezing of thought and action that we then take up the fight or flight response. It is during the transition from this momentary freezing to the fight or flight response that we decide which course of action to take, either to fight back, in any number of ways, overtly or covertly, or to escape, to run, to flee, to take flight. During that ever so brief moment of decision making, a tremendous amount of calculation takes place. A complex set of equations and cost benefit analysis takes place determining which course of action would yield the most useful and productive result given the resources and capacities available at the time.

Fight or flight is a rather primitive response to a perceived threat or attack. Its effectiveness, however, cannot be argued since that very response has served to perpetuate the species through all kinds of dangers through the ages. There is another, more advanced, more evolved, response to a perceived, or actual, threat or attack, called Fusion. Fusion is actually the de-fusing of a threat or an attack by joining forces with it, by united with it, by fusing with it. One of the key ingredients in a perceived threat or attack is opposing forces. There must be an attacker and a victim, a hunter and prey. But, what if the victim vanishes, or the prey becomes invisible? What if the bully all of a sudden finds there is nobody there? This becomes kin to the Zen koan ‘what is the hand of one hand clapping?’ If there could be a way of eliminating this perceived sense of opposition, of duality, of conflict, then any sense of threat or attack would evaporate like ice turning into steam and merging with atmosphere.

The critical factor in fusion is perception. If, as is often said, perception is reality, then fusion comes about by the perception of a reality in which the self is not at all threatened. And, the question then must arise, what is the self that it can, or cannot, itself, be threatened. It is the asking, and answering, of this question which makes fusion a more advanced, more evolved, response to a perceived threat or attack. It requires an understanding of self as a conception, a fabrication, a mental construct, with not substantial foundation. The self is built up entirely through interactions and has no independent status it can call its own. And, that which has no independent status, that which requires interaction and relationship for its very basis, cannot be threatened or attacked, no more than interaction and relationship in general can be destroyed. Granted, this is a somewhat philosophical, metaphysical and, perhaps even spiritual, orientation. But, then so is fusion as a response to a perceived threat or attack. And, how does one apply this response? Poets and mystics have expressed the idea often…..though simplicity itself, perhaps the most difficult to achieve…the being at one with the situation, the merging of the individual with the whole, the surrender of the self to the universal…..the fusion of the I into the We.

The Seventh Cardinal Sin of Thinking

water lilies

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule. It’s the same idea in just about every religion. But, consider this. What if the original translation was more along the lines of a statement of fact than an injunction: “You do unto others as you do unto yourself.” We treat others as we treat ourselves. If we are kind to ourselves, we are kind to others. If we are self degrading, we degrade others. If we accept this as at least a reasonable possibility, and if we look at the brutality of the world, it’s not difficult to see that we don’t treat ourselves very well.

The history of self belittlement is lengthy and complicated. It has roots in both religious and secular thinking. It is sometimes considered kin to humility and therefore not only tolerated but encouraged. But, like the overly exaggerated self promoter hiding a sense of inferiority, humility can too be a sign of an over active ego. As the saying goes, “don’t humble yourself, you’re not that great.”

But, not being great or successful or wealthy or healthy or smart or…whatever desirable trait we might imagine, is no reason for self belittlement. There is no rational reason for engaging in the kind of self talk which demeans or degrades us. It’s bad enough that others may belittle us. In fact, we often learn how to do it to ourselves from others, in particular parents, teachers and others who are close to us and in a position of perceived authority. The litany of phrases used on misbehaving children is extensive. In many cases, the phrases would fall into the category of verbal abuse. It’s easy to recognize how a child can become an adult with a poor self image.

Self image is the foundation of our psychological life. Although it is just an image, it nonetheless exerts tremendous influence over our emotions and our behavior. There is hardly a psychologist, psychiatrist, counselor educator, sociologist or philosopher who would deny the importance of self image. Fortunately, because the image of our self is an image, a mental concept, it can be changed. It is not a fixed, concrete formation. Our self image has been built up largely through our own self talk. Year after year, layer upon layer, the experiences, the interpretations and evaluations, the meanings, the sentences…they all combine to form a knot of self. Tight. Tense. Defensive. Yet, not without creativity, spontaneity, insight, tremendous potential…Coming to understand and accept ourselves may be our life work – for each and every one of us.

Our path towards a new, improved, better self image need not be based on repeating a string of affirmations about how positive we are; it is not, necessarily, about being “ok.” We might not be ok, we might be a wreck. But, that is no reason for self belittlement. Regardless of how bad off we might be, how screwed up, how confused, how conflicted, how much in debt….none of that is reason for self belittlement. Yet, our upbringing has likely trained us to do just that: belittle ourselves when we are not living up to expectations so often set by others – which we often internalize as our own.

Our task, if we choose to take it, is simply to refuse engaging in any self talk which is degrading, demeaning, debasing, disparaging, deriding, or denigrating. Using positive self talk is certainly helpful; however, it is more important to stop the self belittlement as what good would it do if we tell ourselves how positive we are when underneath, quietly and secretly, we are telling ourselves just the opposite. We can also practice avoiding belittlement of others. There is enough research to strongly suggest that people respond better to encouragement than belittlement! And the same is true within us. Encouragement is more productive than belittlement. Stop the belittlement. Increase the encouragement.

We need to pay special attention to our own negative self talk, catch it in the act and gently acknowledge the untruth of it. The habits of negative self talk can be deeply entrenched. It may take years of diligence to uproot self belittlement. The result, however, is a much more natural, healthy, easy going, unfrightened and generous self.

It all comes back to our thinking. Our thinking can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven. Our thinking can make us healthy and happy or sick and miserable. Unreasonable, unrealistic and irrational thinking doesn’t work to anyone’s benefit. There is no better time than right now to begin the task of making our mind a more heavenly place.