I am writing this post while vacationing in Mexico. It seems fitting to write about happiness in such a beautiful place. There was a time when all I thought I needed to be happy was all the things I didn’t have. Now I no longer pursue happiness. I appreciate when I am happy, but I appreciate more the times when I am at peace with myself and with the world.
Happiness Verses Contentment
All emotions are caused by what happens to us and what we tell ourselves about it. If we are excited about what happens, we feel happy. When we don’t like what happens, we feel sad or frustrated. In order to be happy all the time, we’d have to constantly tell ourselves how great and wonderful everything was. This is neither realistic nor honest.
Unlike happiness, contentment is not so much an emotion as an attitude; a way of being in the world. Contentment is seeing things realistically and accepting things we cannot change. It means being at peace with ourselves, others, and our circumstances, even though things aren’t always as we would like them to be. It means being grateful for what we do have and not focusing on what we don’t have.
The Goal is to Experience All Our Emotions
Happiness is only one of the many emotions necessary to experience a rich life. Rather than striving for constant happiness, it is more helpful to strive to experience all our emotions, even unpleasant ones, without letting them overwhelm, consume, or control us.
Having easy access to all our emotions is vital to a healthy, contented life. We need our emotions to tell us what we like and don’t like, and what to avoid and what to seek out. We need our emotions to experience love and joy, to avoid people who aren’t good for us, and when necessary, to grieve a loss. If too often our emotions are overwhelming and negative, we try to suppress them.
Suppressing Negative Emotions
When we suppress painful emotions, we also unintentionally suppress good emotions. We end up feeling no joy, even in situations where joy would be natural and expected.
We need positive, self-affirming experiences to heal old hurts and inoculate ourselves against future hurts. Hurts are easier to bear when they are rare in comparison to the many positive experiences we have. When we try to avoid negative emotions and experiences, we also limit positive ones. We don’t create a buffer for ourselves against inevitable hurts.
Five to One Ratio
John Gottman, researcher and therapist, says we need five positive experiences for every negative one in order to maintain a positive perspective. Too often when we have been deeply wounded, we avoid new situations, fearing rejection no matter how slight the chance.
We may avoid rejection by not committing fully to our relationships. We may avoid meeting new people, joining a group, or accepting a social invitation for fear of not fitting in. Anything new that has the potential to not go well, we avoid.
By avoiding potential unpleasantness in new situations, we also avoid the chance of having a self-affirming, positive experience. We keep our ratio of positives to negatives low, and don’t build the emotional bank account necessary to withstand negative experiences.
Cultivate an Attitude of Appreciation
We can increase our positive experiences by appreciating the joy and beauty in the things around us that we often taken for granted. You don’t need to be in Mexico to appreciate beauty; it is everywhere. We can cultivate contentment by taking the time to appreciate the joy in a good cup of coffee, lunch with a friend, a child’s hand in ours, or the smile of someone we love.
So often we look for the big things to make us happy and overlook the many small things that add up to a life of contentment.
To learn more about emotion regulation, check out the links below. For specific DBT skills go to the DBT Skills in the menu.
“Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”