My training in psychology, with its almost exclusive focus on pain, is a very common story.
What you focus on most often becomes familiar, and what is familiar feels real to you. — Robert Holden, Ph.D.
It also reflects a tendency in our society to focus on negatives. Doctors, for instance, study illness, not health. Business leaders analyze failure, not success. Economists study cost, not value. Philosophers mostly debate original sin, not original blessing. Christians talk endlessly about crucifixion, not resurrection. Mental health organizations publish books on “Understanding Depression,” “Understanding Stress,” and “Understanding Bereavement,” but not on “Understanding Joy” and “Understanding Love.”
The media is full of journalists suffering from an addictive, antisocial, obsessive-compulsive need to communicate and make up bad news. Literature and art is full of depressed poets and painters—can you name three joyful poets?
What you focus on most often becomes familiar, and what is familiar feels real to you.
In our society, we focus on pain before joy, tears before laughter, and fear before love, so we gradually grow blind to our inner, ever-present potential for happiness. I remember well how my lecturers frowned on happiness.
What they taught me essentially was: “If you find that you’re experiencing happiness—don’t worry—you’re just in denial, and the pain will soon return!”
Happiness appeared to have no value, other than that it offered a temporary respite between periods of pain and trauma.
It was defined simplistically as the absence of pain.
Other messages I received included, “Happiness is superficial, pain is deep,” “Laughter is a common symptom of manic depression,” “Smiling a lot means you’re suppressing a hidden pain,” “Optimism is often unrealistic and delusional,” and “Talking to God is the first sign of a nervous breakdown.”
Of greater concern to me, though, is the large body of thought within the psychology profession that suggests that happiness is in some way a dysfunctional behavior in light of all the suffering in the world.
The idea is: “If you have normal blood pressure living in our troubled world, you’re not taking it seriously enough.”
There have been several recent studies that have tried to suggest that happiness is only an avoidance of real issues, a selfish coping strategy, or a superficial form of escape.
This thinking doesn’t take into account that your happiness is an inspiration, a gift to others, and a way out of suffering.
When I asked my lecturers why we didn’t study happiness, they usually challenged me to look at my resistance to embracing my pain more fully!
The most common explanation given, however, for why happiness, love, peace, and God aren’t studied by psychologists is that they cannot be measured as easily as fear and pain.
In other words, they are inner potentials that don’t show up on laboratory apparatus designed to measure externals.
Just because psychologists choose not to focus on joy, however, doesn’t mean to say that joy doesn’t exist. We can refuse to look at the sun, for example, but that won’t make it go away.
Excerpted from my book, Be Happy