I think we are lied to growing up. I remember being fully aware that happiness is the ultimate goal in life, and that anything that hurts, anything that may momentarily bring us pain or discomfort, gets in the way. It feels as though happiness is painted as some end goal, some treasure that we can reach through years and years of seeking. Unfortunately, not only is this fundamentally false at every angle, but it is this sole belief, that happiness is something we can achieve, and that pain is in its way, that actually prevents us from feeling happy.
Happiness is a feeling, just like anger, hunger, and everything thing else we experience between our ears. The notion that happiness can be found, like some sort of Indiana Jones's quest is glamorizing and heartwarming to hold onto as truth, but it is erroneous in its claims. The 9 year sitcom, One Tree Hill, explains this when a character named Julian states that, “Happiness is not a destination. It is a mood, it is not permanent. It comes and goes and if people thought that way then maybe people would find happiness more often.”
A common belief that I hear way too often from people my age is that money, a family, a home, or (insert material object here) is the key to happiness, and that they won’t be happy until that achieve that. This, as unfortunately I have learned, and they will too, is also an error in thinking. Time magazine states that, there is an median amount of money that produces happiness in terms of an ease of mind and lack of financial stress, but anything above this amount does not directly correlate to more happiness.
Another factor in this is the Adaptation Theory. The Adaptation Theory, at a basic level, essentially states that we are constantly evolving in response to changes in our environment. We adapt, it is an essential human trait, but it has a flip side. We don’t feel the same way about our partners as we did in the beginning (relationships grow and evolve, which is another topic for another time), the object we bought does not excite us as it once did, or the home we have has become regular as days have passed. This is why we don’t see a higher amount of happiness among the rich than we do amount the middle class, because we adapt to our situations. This means that the end result of achieving some feat that we have set our minds in does not give us life long happiness, but momentary happiness (which is also a good thing).
The great author Ryan Holiday shares this idea when he states, “When we are young and ambitious we are susceptible to what psychologists would call the belief in “conditional happiness.” That if we get this, earn that, win this, get promoted to that, marry this or sleep with that, we will suddenly be happy. That we will suddenly feel good about ourselves if we get this good thing. It’s only with time and the good fortune required to get those things that we begin to understand that this is a seductive and unreachable mirage. As soon as we get those things, we want other things—or they turn out to be disappointing or complicated. We expect that they will be free of our current problems but they aren’t because we bring our problems to them (and create new problems along with them).”
On the flip side, pain, and situations that seemingly inhibit our happiness are not as bad as they have been stated to be. In fact, it is as a result of this pain, that we become better, happier, and more competent human beings. Pain in our society can be seen in many forms. It is physical, as we all know, but it is also emotional or mental, such as discomfort, and it is even situational, such as something, “bad” happening to you.
Unfortunately, we have structured our society around complete avoidance of pain. We have climate controlled environments in every structure we spend time in, we have pain reducing medication on hand at every corner, we even have fancy shoes and clothing to prevent any discomfort. This is a falsity, this idea that we can live without pain or discomfort, that we can create a world that fits on demands. As The Tools co-author Barry Michels states in an interview about how discomfort is what forces us to exit our comfort zones, “Life is painful, life is uncertain, and life requires ceaseless effort.”
Social psychologist Brock Bastian states that this avoidance of pain is the reason that we have began raising our children differently as time has passed. To summarize a point he made in his Ted Talk “Why we need pain to feel happiness”, Bastian states that we have, over time, raised our average grades handed out in schools from B’s and C’s, to A’s. This is not due to smarter youth, but to a system created to attempt to alleviate any discomfort from their lives. He goes on to state that this protection of youth from discomfort is the sole reason we so so many young adults are struggling when they reach independence, why their is a rise in narcissistic personality traits, and a rise in anxiety and depression-related illnesses. By protecting our loved ones from pain, we are preventing them from building “physiological immunity”.
It has long been understood that having tough times makes us better individuals. Epictetus, the ancient Greek Philosopher, stated, “Difficulties are things that show what men are.” His Stoic counterpart, Seneca, had his own quote about difficulties, where he said, “Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” I used to curse the sky that I was born into the life I led. I allowed envy to soak into my veins that other children had happy families, that other children didn’t suffer with weight issues, that other children were “normal”. Now, as I reflect on who I am, it is exactly those times that have shaped me. I would not be who I am if I didn’t develop mental fortitude by watching my parents live the way they did, by living at the bottom of the food chain in school, by having my heart broken as a young adult, or by any other event that I perceived as negative, any event that in the moment, I wished would cease.
We hear so often people say that they would not change a thing about their pasts, because it has shaped who they were. When we look closely, what has shaped them? It has not been the easy times where they coasted through days, no it has been the ground shaking, earth shattering moments where they just had to focus on surviving until the next day. This pain, that we so actively avoid now, in any extent, is the pain that allows us to grow. These unforeseen circumstances that we perceive as bad, such as a divorce, a breakup, an accident, etc, most of the time turn out to be some of the best moments in our lives. Zeno who was a Greek merchant before he was a philosopher, was bound to embark on a journey via ship. Unfortunately (as perceived in the moment), the ship wrecked, and Zeno ended up in Athens, without any of his belongings. It was there, where he began his voyage in philosophy. He later states, “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey.”
This does not mean to go actively seek out pain, but do not fear it. If slightly physical pain presents itself, allow your body to live in it, instead of dousing it with medication. If you feel yourself avoiding a conversation, meeting, or person because of the discomfort that arises inside of you, lean into it. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re certain that what is occurring is negative and will not help you at all, take a step back and attempt to see the positive outcomes from the situation, because I promise you, there are always positive outcomes.
To close, let's look at an experiment that Brock Bastian lays out for us in his TED Talk. People were asked to indicate the measure of their lifetime adversity that have overcome. Once indicated, people who asked to hold their hands in an ice bucket. The results are not shocking to those who understand the benefits of pain. Those who suffered a median amount of lifetime adversity held their hands in the water longer, and experienced less pain than those who did not experience adversity in their lives. On the flip side, the scientists changed the experiment to a survey on happiness and well-being in life. The group with the median lifetime adversity came out on top again. The ones with moderate measures of lifetime adversity were able to experience more pain in the moment, but also had more feelings of happiness in their lives overall. This pain that they felt in their pasts helped them become resilient.
As we move forward, hide not from pain, but embrace it. Fear not having your loved ones suffer, or your children fail in school. Pain will not ruin them, it will not ruin you. Pain will not inhibit you from feeling happiness, but to the contrary, it is this pain that will strengthen you, that will allow you to understand positive emotions in life.
Previously published by Thought Catalog at www.thoughtcatalog.com.