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Happiness in the Age of Sorrow

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Cold and Unhappy by Peter Michaelson

It's a great time to discover our source of happiness, even while the world's chaos, looting, violence, and depravity are producing so much unhappiness.

We're talking here about genuine happiness, not superficial, smiley faces. Genuine happiness is the pleasant connection we feel to ourselves and to life when we clear out our inner conflicts, negativity, and fear.

There's a simple formula for finding happiness, one that's been overlooked by most experts. The key to happiness is found in understanding our determination to be unhappy.  

In other words, the way to be happy is to understand how and why we create our own unhappiness. It's all a learning process. We have to understand the inner mechanisms whereby we chose to suffer.

Now lots of people say they do understand their unhappiness. They say, "Give me more money, or more friends, or a better personality, or a bigger house, or a kinder society, and I'll be happy."

Wrong! Studies show that the things we say we want don't make us happier in the long run. That's because our secret (unconscious) interest is to go on feeling that something is missing.

Some cognitive psychologists say this tendency to seek happiness through unfruitful ways is due to "logic-processing errors." But their explanation is too superficial. We have to go deeper to understand our emotional determination to recycle painful feelings and memories, including experiences from our past that are unconscious. Logic and common sense can't unravel unconscious conflict and negativity. We need in-depth knowledge of the manner in which we recycle unresolved negative emotions. This knowledge exposes our unconscious choices to suffer.

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The logic of cognitive psychologists is ridden with "logic-processing errors." According to cognitive psychologist Daniel Gilbert, we need a certain level of illusion or delusion, a "psychological immune system," that "allows us to feel good enough to cope with our situation but bad enough to do something about it." Gilbert's remedy is a formula for endless conflict between feeling good and feeling bad. The New York Times review of Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), was aptly titled, "The Joy of Delusion."

Gilbert also writes, "If we were to experience the world exactly as it is, we'd be too depressed to get out of bed in the morning." Wait a minute! That's not true at all. Think of people who meditate. They're not afraid of reality. They search for truth and meaning on an inner level, and feel happier for doing so.

We have to be willing to approach reality, or we'll be like children afraid of the dark. We won't be able to deal with challenges such as climate change, resource depletion, terrorism, and the computer-driven assault on financial stability.

I'm saying that we're unhappy because we keep recycling our negative emotions. Now, it's obviously illogical to do that. So why do we? It happens because humans haven't yet established inner freedom, meaning freedom from negative emotions. Logic is no match for these powerful emotions. What we need instead is precise knowledge of our psyche's operating system.

Most of us, as one example, are tempted to feel deprived to some degree or other. We first felt deprived in early childhood when we became conscious that the oral satisfaction of feeding was sometimes not immediately available to us when we wanted it. Since babies can't differentiate time, 10 minutes of waiting for a busy mommy to show up for their feeding seems like an eternity. The wait to be fed offends a baby's sense of what reality should be. The expectation of feeling deprived becomes imprinted in the baby's psyche. This tendency to feel that something is missing or that deprivation is taking place lingers on in the adult psyche as an emotional attachment (meaning something we're compelled to continue to experience). Because of our unconscious attachment to deprivation, we go looking for that feeling in various ways.

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Compulsive shoppers, as just one example, are driven to acquire new things. But typically they're soon feeling empty or depressed again. Their compulsive behavior is the need to "prove" they want to get something of value, in order to cover up or defend against the unconscious attachment to the lingering, unresolved deprivation.

This same inner dynamic is a major factor in overeating and in compulsive wealth accumulation. Wealthy people can be determined to feel deprived, and hence unhappy, when they are compulsively driven to accumulate more riches in order to feel satisfied.

We unconsciously indulge in bittersweet longings. We also have many other ways through which we are determined to experience unhappiness. Many of these are described in my new e-book, Why We Suffer: A Western Way to Understand and Let Go of Unhappiness.

Peter Michaelson is an author, blogger, and psychotherapist in Plymouth, MI. He believes that better understanding of depth psychology reduces the fear, passivity, and denial of citizens, making us more capable of maintaining and growing our (more...)

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It's wet and chilly here in Michigan. I'm happy an... by Peter Michaelson on Friday, May 20, 2011 at 11:45:21 PM
Obviously, you have a fine house and maybe a pet d... by Ned Lud on Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 8:13:04 AM
"The expectation of feeling deprived becomes impri... by GLloyd Rowsey on Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 12:47:53 AM
Lloyd -- The story behind "the expectation of feel... by Peter Michaelson on Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 7:54:45 AM
which goes back to Konrad Lorenz's geese. Evident... by GLloyd Rowsey on Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 10:54:56 AM
Until you can establish an 'inner environment' whi... by Ned Lud on Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 8:05:19 AM
For me, happiness is one of those words that reall... by Judy Palmer on Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 9:52:58 AM
Some people don't get it when I say I'm happy bein... by Ned Lud on Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 4:10:25 PM
It is when you are understoodThose are not my word... by Mark Sashine on Saturday, May 21, 2011 at 6:10:27 PM
Just curious if you know REBT (Rational Emotive Be... by David Vicks on Sunday, May 22, 2011 at 7:11:04 PM
David, My belief is that REBT is not going to be a... by Peter Michaelson on Monday, May 23, 2011 at 9:33:58 AM