Happiness is a lot like riding a bicycle, if you think and concentrate too hard on each process, you are likely to start to wobble and ultimately fall. You have to be gentle and feel your way into the process, and then reduce analysis, rumination and questioning as you are gliding along – or bombing down steep mountain trails! And yet you have to practice. Some people are naturals and others struggle. This can relate to genetics, early attachments, life experiences and more. I love this topic, as I have had my own struggles with happiness over the years linked to my own mental health challenges and have observed this being a common pattern for people I have worked with. For people experiencing both anxiety and mood disorders happiness can be tricky. Working with clients with varying mental health challenges (like OCD, generalized anxiety disorder, panic, depersonalization disorder and depression) I have seen many ways that difficulties with happiness seem to play out. It may be really hard to let yourself enjoy life. We might struggle to ride our bike. We might need to start with stabilisers or a helping push.
A few examples of how these barriers to happiness might look include:
- Depression is characterised by numbness and anhedonia or an inability to experience positive emotions. Thought processes play out like the self-attacking inner critic ‘I don’t deserve happiness’ or existential barriers like ‘this won’t last anyway, what’s the point, life is short’. For other people it’s more felt sense based: strong feeling barriers like numbness and psychological pain block the small sparks of positive emotion. Professor Richard Davidson’s work showed that depressed people do activate their brains reward system in the presence of positive experiences, it’s just that it does not stay activated and soon fades. In people without depression the reward centre lights up and burns brightly long after a positive event ends. There are brain based barriers to the reward and motivation to experience happiness. People may struggle to have the attention or cognitive capacity to concentrate on things enough to enjoy them.
- If we take psychiatric medication (which I think has its place in recovery especially in acute phases of mental health challenges) we may find our emotional range is blunted so that we feel fewer positive feelings. Meds can take away the extreme pain of negative emotions but they can also flatten out happiness and positive emotions.
- In anxiety disorders people often have anxiety triggered when they start to feel anxious and experience less positive emotions as anxiety increases. If the cognitive process of worry is a stronger component (rather than felt sense anxiety) then people may worry happiness won’t last, that they don’t deserve happiness, they won’t achieve things by making time for happiness, they need to think about others and worry if they relax and enjoy something, they won’t be able to spot danger. Or it might be the sensations and felt sense of anxiety is the barrier. The gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach or your pounding heart makes it hard to enjoy the moment. I used to experience panic attacks when sitting back to enjoy some music. I would experience nausea, beating heart, tunnel vision, depersonalization and other perceptual changes of anxiety ‘amping’ up as I tried to enjoy a new album.
- In OCD people may have obsessive concerns about safety and threat that simply don’t allow much space for happiness. If people have obsessive existential thoughts they may ruminate and question around life, meaning, happiness, reality etc and these obsessions may block the ability to relax into pleasure and joy. OCD often targets the things we care about the most, so if we value enjoying life, intrusive thoughts or sensations may threaten to distract and ruin our happiness indefinitely.
- In depersonalization disorder our attention may be so hijacked by feelings of unreality in ourselves or the world that it becomes difficult to engage in experiences that bring pleasure and happiness. Happiness may feel remote and distant or a concept that itself feels unreal.
- In trauma our current reality may be so hijacked by past traumatic events that we can’t experience pleasure and may be immersed in panic, psychological or emotional flashbacks or depression. It can feel like there is no time to enjoy experiences when we are in survival mode.
- Clearly there are other ways this could play out in other psychological disorders like manic depression where the highs, hijack pleasant states so that we may not even feel present to enjoy them, or the pain of the lows overpower the highs. We may not be able to enjoy simple and relaxed pleasure that doesn’t measure up to the euphoric states. Positive emotions are ‘too highly’ up regulated and our behaviour risks relationships or our own safety. Addictions hi-jack the reward system and dampen its effects over time, we go from enjoying our drug of choice to needing it to stop deep psychological and physical suffering. Or we might have perceptual disturbances in psychosis etc that mean it is so difficult to connect with the present moment and experience happiness.
These are just a few examples. The human brain is so complex this could play out in many other ways. It seems that an element of difficulty with happiness manifests in many, if not all, mental health challenges. Others have written about this and arguably positive psychology has attempted to work directly with this challenge. Mark Freeman talks about the most challenging exposure being to enjoy life, Shala Nicely talks about emotional compulsions that might block happiness and in Miriam Akhtar’s excellent book ‘Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression’ she talks about how she used to question ‘but am I happy’ in the presence of pleasant experiences and this intellectual process would rob her of her happiness. My mind would create barriers to happiness in different ways. For example, I would ruminate existentially about things like happiness ‘what is it and am I feeling it’, I would feel anxiety and depersonalization activated in the presence of happiness or my depression would overshadow it with pain and numbness or throw up questions about the futility of happiness. At one point my partner joked with me that I was ‘serious about happiness’.
To work with this, I have found that standing facing into the storm has been key. Like with anxiety treatment, exposure to what we fear the most, without doing compulsions to remove the uncertainty and anxiety has been so useful. Learning to accept uncertainty and not answer questions my brain throws at me around happiness; accepting painful emotions; and focusing on pleasant experiences have all become practices and skills I have developed (and continue developing) over time. Practice being happy. Schedule positive events, make time for savouring and gratitude and when your own unique mind tries its method to control happiness, remove uncertainty, spot threats , question it etc then notice and accept this and then engage back into the present moment. If there is a tiny portion of positive emotion, gratitude or engagement then lean into and cultivate your connection with it. Connect with other people and savour together. We learn to ride our bike with others, often more skilled than ourselves. Be kind and gentle with yourself, the practice of happiness is closely linked to self-compassion. As Rick Hanson say’s ‘take in the good’ and ‘marinate’ in a positive experience long enough for it to form lasting neural changes in your brain.
Another interesting point is that we often think we can’t experience positive mental and emotional processes in the presence of pain. But in reality, we can. Normally the pain overshadows and eclipses the positive experiences but with practice we can feel gratitude, meaning, engagement and joy in the presence of psychological or physical pain.
Just like physical fitness this takes practice. Especially if you are not one of the naturally happy folks. You might need a little longer with the stabilisers on the bike or with someone running alongside you. But we can all get better at riding our bikes and then we never really forget it even if we get a little rusty.
Why not plan three pleasant events for the next couple of days and engage deeply in them no matter what stress, depression or fear is in the background?