Friday, June 21, 2013

The Pursuit of Happiness is Over Rated

Way back in the 1980's I was about to embark on big ski trip to the USA and Canada,  for which I had been working towards and saving for the previous 18 months.  So when my friend Jacquai suggested I do a self esteem course with her several months before I flew out, the thought of forking out the $250 tuition fee  did not sit well with me.  I was also to be a bridesmaid  at a friend's wedding before I left and I seem to remember the dress was to cost $250 as well. Those two sums plus the associated pre wedding shin digs, at least one of which I was to put on, amounted to a big chunk of my spending money, and in those days was quite alot of dosh.

Anyway Jacquai  must have been very skilled, as I was persuaded to attend the 6 week course with her.  Accordingly, I learned alot about myself and some priceless strategies to deal with the curve balls life inevitably throws at you.

It seems superficial now, but I guess I was persuaded to attend the course because I thought I may be able use some self esteem insight for my trip.  I was travelling alone and at the time, I thought if I could master the art of walking into a bar by myself and making friends from there, my holiday would be all the more enjoyable.

Although I could never have dreamed it at the time, it turns out it was about the best $250 I have ever spent.  That course not only facilitated the achievement of my now seemingly frivolous social and travel goals back then, but I have been figuratively 'walking into those bars' on this wild ride called life ever since and it has set me up very well for the last 25 years.  It has given me the strategies to be free to be me and not to have to be a people pleaser against my will.  To have a certain self respect and  to be confident enough to know that I am basically a good person , without others having to constantly tell me that.   To be resilient enough, to understand the consequences of my actions and to take responsibility for them. A kind of take it or leave it approach, which aims to respect others, but not lose too much sleep over it, if people choose to 'leave it' where I am concerned.

I was reminded of the coping skills that course gave me last night, when I attended a talk by author, psychologist and social researcher Hugh Mackay, who was in my area to flog his new book, The Good Life.

Unfortunately for Hugh, I don't need to buy the book, because most of what he said it seems, I learned on that course 25 years ago.

Here's a little of  my take on what he said about acheiving The Good Life:

Hugh suggested the sense of entitlement some people convey in the pursuit of happiness, can be at times mind boggling.  That is, that people feel they are entitled to a constant state of happiness, a kind of Nirvana if you will, at the cost of everyone and everything else.  Ironically that pursuit of perfection is often the actual source of their unhappiness, because it is unrealistic and not at all possible to constantly maintain over the long term.  It also blows off relationships, the quality of which are often part of the key to our well being.

He said that by definition, humans are capable of feeling the full range of emotions from the lowest low to the highest high and it is inevitable that that full range will be felt by everyone at different points across their life.
By not accepting that at times, you will feel very low and allowing yourself to kind of wallow in it you are setting yourself up for trouble.  By not allowing it to be OK to feel the varying shades of blue and accepting that at points in your life you will feel like this, you are denying yourself the full experience of the human condition.  

In many ways, I think it can be exhausting trying to block out the bad bits.  For me it easier to allow them in, feel  and process them and ultimately to let them go.  A strategy I learned on the self esteem course.

Hugh went on to observe that in life, there is adversity everywhere and it is ironic that those who have experienced great trauma, often say that although they would have preferred not to have been exposed to it, it had crystalised things for them, they had learned and often become a better person and had a better life because of it.

   On my course 25 years ago, I learned that it's OK to feel terrible.  The key, is to give yourself permission to feel it for as long as it takes, then to let it go.  I do this sometimes,  I wallow in it, I cry and let it be OK to feel rotten and let myself feel the unwanted emotion.  I am not scared of feeling it and if I let it in and feel what it is like, I am able to eventually let it go.  I accept that it will not always feel this bad.  The same too,  when I am very very happy, I accept that it will not last, but those highest of highs I enjoy until they fade to a more realistic point and I get closer to neutral on the feel good spectrum.

I also spend alot of time making mental lists of what I do have rather than what I don't.  That  process often jolts me toward a feeling of happiness, because I become grateful for all that I have.

Hugh said it is no accident that the rise and rise of the recreational drug industry has grown exponentially and in relation to this sense of entitlement to a constant state of happiness.  We have a generation of adults now who have been told they were awesome and very special from day one, who were not allowed to lose, who got the trophy just for turning up.

I mean when did repeating a year in your early schooling become completely unacceptable?  Probably when parents or the chatting classes decided that being born between January and July meant you should be kept back a year before you started school, thus making some stragglers way too old to repeat.  I have many friends who repeated in early and later primary without being psychologically damaged or disadvantaged in any way.  Why, I've got a good mate who has really good friends in our year of school and she is really good friends with girls from the year above us too, as result of being with them for 7 years of her primary schooling and in my year for the other six at high school.

Another example of not allowing our kids to fail which annoys me intensely, is the pass the parcel party game.  It is just one such example of how we have set our kids up to fail.  In my day there was one winner and only one winner.  She was the kid who unwrapped the last sheet of paper.  Yes remember that lucky duck?   We accepted it and survived and were safe in the knowledge that one day that lucky kid may be 'me'.  Apart from the feeling of anticipation, that we may be close to winning during the game, if we didn't win, which was almost always the case, we were left with that exciting emotion of hope for the next party.  I wonder what emotion the kids are left with now after this party game.

Recently the littlest Beach House Brat was at a party where a guest's mum had to be called back early to console her kid, because she did not win what I call, one of the sub prizes in pass the parcel, the one she wanted anyway,......a lipstick.  I only heard about it, when I arrived to pick up my daughter, because she had won the lipstick.  Although I said nothing, I did query to myself what a lipstick was doing as a gift at a 4 years old's party.  Perhaps that's me being judgmental and passive aggressive, but if I am completely honest, I was probably more worried about having to clean purple lips off my beloved lounge suite, than my kid now thinking she is supposed to wear lipstick when she goes to parties, which she does by the way....... yikes.

So what does Hugh make of this concept of every kid being a winner?  He talked about parents often saying.  "I just want my kids to be happy". I have said and wanted that for my kids many times myself.   Hugh suggested a better mantra might be,  "I just want my kids to be resilient". Hugh said resilience and self discipline are now considered to be much better indicators of well being and happiness in a kid.

He suggested allowing your kids to feel the full gamut of emotions. Not trying to jolly them along when they are unhappy, but rather letting them know it's OK to feel bad and that it will pass.  Teaching them that not having every material desire fulfilled is healthy.  That it will not always be like this either, that is feeling unsatisfied, but that it is a realistic and normal aspect of life.

We have to do alot of things in life we don't like doing.  Engaging in paid work daily is often one such experience.  Hugh talked about the nature of work and how we don't always want to do it and it cannot always be fun, but it has to be done and often gives us great meaning and purpose.  Someone in the audience piped up and said how the job ads in the 'positions vacant' section, often talked about how much 'fun' there was to be had in that particular office and how the team was so 'fun and engaging'.  It was agreed that this was not really possible, but was evidence of the lengths society goes to to sell the idea that no pain need be felt, when the reality is quite the contrary.

It seems the selling of the idea that everything would be wonderful if only you could attain the happiness you are entitled to via the pursuit of stuff, experiences and perfect relationships, has lead to that well known concept of self loathing, because it is rarely attainable as a constant for long.  Ironically the pursuit of happiness and its associated feel good emotions, has in fact ultimately created so much unhappiness, with its often dire consequences such as suicide and hate crimes.

There was also a discussion with Hugh about the pursuit of 'stuff' and its relationship with the pursuit of happiness.  My kids are on this trajectory.  A path which is only kept in check by our limited budget.  My son in particular, is part of the cut and thrust of the digital age and is constantly scheming of ways to keep up with his mates in terms of new games and technology.  No strategies for that here I'm afraid, except for that glorious and liberating word "No."

I have to admit, I was sucker punched into buying him an Xbox several Christmases ago, because he said he was being bullied, which he was, but he said it was because he couldn't contribute to the discussion in the playground, because we didn't have an X box.  Although the bullying has stopped, purchasing that X box was about the worst decision I ever made and it causes lots of  problems for family life on the weekend, when he is allowed to use it.

As for the pursuit of stuff generally, I am lucky that I do not have that gene which desires a shed load of stuff to constantly lift my mood.  I do however have friends who have racked up big debts and jeopardized their marriages over the pursuit of endless stuff.  Believe me I have many vices, but over spending is not one of them.  A friend of Mr Beach House sidled up to me the other day, telling me my husband had said something to him, which he said was a compliment to me.  We had been out the previous evening for some fine dining.  It is done rarely and savoured when it is.  Mr Beach House said to his mate that he was very glad I would rather eat a $250 meal than buy a $250 pair of shoes, because at least he got a piece of the action.  That made me laugh because he never told me that.  He just jokingly told me I looked like a hooker, because I was wearing an old fur stole of my granny's.  Lucky I am well adjusted isn't it?

So what is Hugh's key to achieving this resilience in order to live The Good Life?  It is a little bit like the proverb 'Do unto others as you would have them do to you'.......but Hugh says it is not exactly that either, because that analogy does not work with religion or politics of course.  Rather it is about being good to others, respecting people, really listening to them, taking them seriously, not retaliating,  being kind, and not asking them to do things they do not want to do.  So much of the unhappiness in the world would be gone if we acted a little more like this.  Do not be distracted by trying to achieve the perfect marriage, home, friendship, children, body or lifestyle.  Accept that they all inevitably have flaws and bad feelings associated with them and embrace them.

It's about relationships and accepting the good times with the bad.  It's about kindness and being good.  It is definitely not about sacrificing others on the alter of our own ambitions.

Interestingly, surveys have shown that parents are happier when they are not in the immediate company of their young children,.  Parents would much rather go out to dinner together as a couple,  but that ironically, the stability of place and purpose within family life can be one of the most fulfilling concepts in life.  I have to admit to getting it.

I tried a little kindness and engagement with my community this morning on the school run, by parking the car, walking around my village and talking with people. I was even pleasant to the Beach House Brat when I found out I would have to pay to get his lost Bus Pass replaced.  I thought I am angry, but let it go and be kind to him, what's done is done. I may make him pay for the replacement though, so he is sure not to lose it again. This morning there was certainly no epiphany, no Nirvana going on during this exercise, but I felt better than I did when I left the house half an hour before and inspired enough to come here and write about it and if you knew about the downs my week has contained, you would know that was an improvement.

Hugh gave us another strategy which I will be posing around the dinner table.  Try this.......Instead of asking your kids to tell you the good things that happened to them today, ask them about the kind things they did today. This can be as easy as standing up for someone on the bus.  Just think how happy a life's work of kindness would make a person and those in their community.  Oh the possibilities!!!!!!

Have a great weekend.
Today I am linked up here
With Some Grace
Feathered Nest Friday
Show and Tell Friday
Weekend Wrap Up
Sunday Showcase
Metamorphosis Monday
Inspire Me Tuesday
Wow Us Wednesday
Transformation Thursday
Say G'day Saturday
Sundae Scoop


  1. some very interesting and pertinent points there!

  2. great words of wisdom, my kids all have to work to pay for any of the high tech stuff they want- we don't buy any of it, but are happy to supply them with some paid jobs to earn enough to buy it themselves, I think it makes them appreciate them more.

  3. i love hugh mackay. i have one of his books 'what makes us tick'. the new one sounds good too. my son didn't have an x box when he was young. we could see him spending way too much time on it. he was probably the only one of his friends without one. he recently bought one with his own money.
    great post!

  4. Lovely to have found you and such a great post via FYBF at With Some Grace. I blog as yinyangmother and am so with you on the philosophy of accepting 'good' and 'bad', of allowing and being grateful and of building resilience in our kids rather than the pursuit of happiness. You and Hugh are wise indeed...kathy

  5. I've been struggling a lot lately with people who are less than nice......I've had to constantly remind myself to keep being nice and to expect nothing in return. At least I'll have nothing to reproach myself for. Now I just need to work on feeling better about myself. T xx
    PS. Great post by the way......I needed that today!

  6. Ohh, I felt the wrath from some other parents once, at my daughter's birthday party another mum came up and whispered to me that I obviously didn't realise, but I was supposed to put a prize in EVERY LAYER of the 'Pass the Parcel', so that EVERYONE got to win! She made it sound like a HUGE social faux pas! I was incredulous then, and no, I never did start putting multiple prizes into those parcels!

  7. Hello C, I saw this was a long post and so sat down to read it with a cup of tea. Thoroughly enjoyed reading about your course and the talk by Hugh Mackay and there is plenty of food for thought there. I do believe in making life a bit difficult for the kids and in fostering independence, but nonetheless their life is VERY different to when I was little. Too much so. Cutting off the money tap to our teen was really good, experience of working and earning money from the age of 15 has been great for him.

    Life can to totallt crap and sometimes we just need to ride it out, and find the wee glimpses of solace int he moment. Having said that, I've had a lovely quiet day at home today. Refreshed for the hordes coming homw.

  8. Great post, Caro. What a lot of wisdom is here! I can't believe there is a child out there who couldn't handle a simple game of pass the parcel. Tragic beyond belief. And yes, the X-Box is a source of so many arguments in our house especially as my older son purchased it with his own money (given to him for his birthday by my family) and he won't let his little brother play with it. What do I have to do? Buy a second X-Box? The world was a much better place when we went outside and dug holes in the dirt xx

  9. Have you got a hidden microphone in my house (and in my mind)? Great minds Carolyn, great minds. If not going through the lowest of lows in my life these last 12 months, I wouldn't have realised or learnt that its impossible to be 100% happy all the time. I teach all of those things you said to my kids every day and we weakened last Christmas buying a Wii but I'm lucky the kids prefer playing made up games. It wasn't without a few 'addiction' problems in the beginning. Great post Carolyn!

    Anne xx

  10. I have about 3000 things I want to say in response to this post, but since I can't I'll just say two: Love. It.
    Best post I've read in a while :)
    Cas x

  11. Fantastic post Carolyn! Am actually going to print it out and read over it often. xx

  12. Oh my god I loved this post. I really loved it. Thank you.

  13. hi Carolyn - great post, I think the idea of the pursuit of happiness is fantastic if you take the Buddhist approach to happiness (and the meaning of) and not the hedonistic commercial worlds approach. a good mantra is always "Be, Do, Have" - rather than in the other order. IYKWIM. on that note have a happy weekend

  14. Loved reading all this!And it added to my Gestalt session at school yesterday!AriadnefromGreece!

  15. Well said, full of wonderful stories that brought smiles to my face.

  16. Great and interesting read Carolyn. Thoroughly enjoyed it.

  17. Great post Carolyn. I especially agreed with your pass the parcel comments!

  18. Fantastic post Carolyn! Gauging happiness and not equating it with material balance in this age of 'bling' seems challenging for beautifully you have explained what we shall refer to as 'The sanity' approach.

  19. Insightful post Caro, got me thinking....

  20. OOh! I am going to Hugh's talk tonight and you just got me excited!

  21. Carolyn - you need to write a book on your thoughts and ideas on this. Much kudos to you for writing about what seems to be an unpopular concept these days - personal accountability. I was diagnosed at 39 with breast cancer. Bad things happen to good people sometimes and we need to teach our children how to cope and deal and that in life, not everyone gets a trophy. Just sayin. Hugs, Holly

    1. I am sorry to hear that about the cancer and hope that you are well and truly on the mend Holly.

  22. Fantastic post. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it and agree 100%.

  23. Really insightful stuff, Carolyn! I love the idea about asking the boys what kind deeds they did that day. And you're right...imagine the possibilities!

  24. Carolyn this is brilliant; I am going to save it along with some of your words of wisdom about marriage that I have tucked away in a special file on my computer.

  25. Wise words! Be kind. It's hard sometimes, but worth it. On the pursuit of happiness through stuff...we are renovating and spending more money than we ever have and it's making me scared not happy!!!! Feeling the feelings and letting them go from now on. On parties, I remember swearing to NEVER EVER do musical chairs again after two birthdays in a row we had tears when someone went out. One of my sons stayed down in Grade 1 and it was the best thing we ever did. It was great for his confidence with his peers and in sport. Not to mention, the main reason we did it - he got a break from struggling so hard with literacy. He also ended up being a late grower and all those kids in the year he should have been in looked huge next to him for years. He has just shot up in the past few months and is a string bean 13 year old. He is a proper teenager with an iphone addiction, still not very good with literacy, but he can text and facebook!!!


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