Americans are so enamoured by the notion of happiness that they have the pursuit of it written into their constitution. We've always been a bit less upfront about our feelings, so happiness isn’t an Irish constitutional right, but a little more of it is never a bad thing, right? Psychotherapist Richard Hogan spoke to Brendan O’Connor about happiness and he began by providing some clarification on what the elusive state we all seemingly crave actually is:
"It’s an individual thing, but there are certain aspects that have to be in place for, I think, for your life, to give yourself the optimal opportunity to meet happiness in your life. And it’s not a constant thing, it’s ephemeral, it’s transient."
In other words, one person’s death metal heaven is another person’s hell, so our happinesses are unique to ourselves. But is there a genetic component to our happiness, or lack thereof, Brendan asks. Yes there is:
"There’s definitely a genetic component to it as well, but that doesn’t mean if we come from a family of maybe, say, naysayers, or quite negative family, you know, parents ahead of us, that we can’t move ourselves out of that narrative about ourselves."
The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and that others tell us about ourselves are very important when it comes to happiness, according to Richard. And where you come in your family of origin can have a significant bearing on the narrative that informs your happiness. Richard uses the example of a first-born female, who’s given a lot of responsibility and told to be the good daughter. And she develops her sense of self around the idea that to be valued, she has to say yes and then she moves on in her life as a pleaser and a doer and a chore-doer:
"And then you move into your 40s and all of a sudden you realise, 'This avatar that I’ve created, it’s not sustainable, it’s not fit for purpose,’ and all of a sudden I meet you in the clinic and you’re kinda going, ‘I don’t know where I am anymore, I don’t know what I laugh at, I don’t know who I am, I’ve lost that sense of self.’ It’s all coming back to these early narratives that we heard about ourselves and that were given to us."
It’s important for people who find that they’re not where they want to be to avoid thinking of themselves as victims, Richard says, and he quotes the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung:
"You are not what happened to you. You are who you choose to become."
This leads back to the narrative of our lives and how we take control of it. In Richard’s words, it’s a case of how we re-author our story:
"We come through terrible experiences, but our ability to re-author that, that’s the difference between collapsing under it or moving through it and thriving."
This is what Richard calls narrative therapy – we re-author the story and look for another dominant narrative that we might have missed or lost along the way. And it’s something we need to do consciously because our brains are primed for negative thoughts:
"We know that thoughts associated with the self are indistinguishable from negative feelings and emotions, so that tells us that, when you think about yourself, you will generally think negatively. We're primed to think negatively."
It makes sense in an evolutionary self-preservation kind of way – if we hear a noise coming from the bush, we’re better off thinking that’s a snake than that it’s nothing to worry about. But we’ve developed what should be a survival skill into what Richard calls a negative churn, a voice that spills negativity into our heads. It’s not something we’re born with, rather it’s what he terms a distorted cognitive corruption:
"Basically what happened is you had a thought, ‘I’m not that good.’ Your parents have said, ‘Oh, you know Brendan, he’s much lazier than John,’ let's say, or 'Jimmy’s not as intelligent as whoever in the family,’ and all of a sudden you go, ‘Well, maybe I’m not as intelligent, or maybe I’m not as likeable, or maybe my only value here in this family is being wild,’ or whatever it is, the narrative is given to you. That’s a thought. And then when you look for evidence of it, it becomes a pathway and so when you think about yourself, the only thought available to you about yourself is that negative thought. And we have 60,000-70,000 thoughts a day."
Narrative therapy is about rewiring that negativity and disrupting that stories we tell ourselves. And it isn't easy, Richard says, it involves work. We need to work "in the interests of our future selves." Part of this work involves surrounding ourselves with people who are genuinely interested in our welfare:
"Connection with those you love and your family is everything. And so if you’re surrounding yourself with people just for the sake of filling up some void in your life and they’re quite negative in your life, I would say you’ve got to really look at that... Think about people who are able to celebrate your successes – that’s a key thing."
You can hear Brendan’s full conversation with Richard by going here.