I’M IN THE MONEY!
We often hear from both clients and students, “All I want is to be happy. Why can’t I be happy like everyone else?” Unfortunately, happiness is one of those elusive states; seek it and you’ll probably find only frustration. It is subjective and emerges from how you live, and is not an end in itself. Making happiness a goal in your life is not an advisable step toward effective coping. You will fail and develop thoughts and actions designed solely to help you avoid future frustration.
Outcomes simply are just not responsible for happiness. One of our clients was awarded a huge sum of money in a personal injury suit involving the wrongful death of one of his children. Unfortunately, he said, “I threw it away on dumb things because I felt guilty about receiving ‘dirty money’ that wasn’t earned.” The real tragedy here is that with some guidance and thought, he and his wife could perhaps have developed a plan to use the money more wisely.
We also know a couple who were in a car accident and received a sizeable settlement out of court. They went on a spending spree: a new house, all the latest modern appliances, new furniture….you name it. The money ran out, of course, and stresses on their marriage began. They had regular arguments on who was to blame for the sudden turn in their “happiness.” They lost the house and filed for divorce.
We all hear people say, “If I win the lottery I will be rich and happy!” Rich, maybe — happy maybe not! Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert notes that in one study, a year after winning the lottery, winners were less happy than were paraplegics one year after their accident. How can that be? When we ask that question we forget that we are considering the lottery winner and the paraplegic from the perspective of our present state, which probably doesn’t include being a lottery winner or a paraplegic. Thus, winning the lottery looks pretty good to us and being confined to a wheelchair looks pretty bad. For the people who actually live in those circumstances, however, their current estimates of happiness are seen in comparison to their earlier life and to the anticipated future.
The lottery winners have learned that the anticipated happiness of winning the lottery was unrealistic; the paraplegics have learned that the challenges imposed by the injury need not be overwhelming or impossible. In both cases it was not the outcome (good luck vs. severe injury) that determined their state of happiness; rather it was the state of mind they had about their life conditions. Overnight wealth can be squandered and lead to long-term problems; paraplegics can choose to find meaning and purpose in their lives through spiritual, artistic, athletic, and other types of pursuits.
These psychological dynamics are by no means limited to things like sudden wealth or severe injury. The same principles apply to loss of loved ones and any other traumatic experience in life.
OK, if the search for happiness is not the key to effective coping, what is? Login tomorrow and we will look for the answer in the flip-side of happiness: Optimism.