Written by Sam Dylan Finch
When I first walked into a therapist’s office when I was 18 years old, I had one goal and one goal only: “I just want to be happy,” I said.
Up until that point, I couldn’t really remember what that felt like. I didn’t know at the time that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (as it turns out, it runs in the family), and that my near-constant state of guilt, panic, and rumination wasn’t actually the way most brains operate.
I thought happiness was the whole point of this “mental health” thing. So, I became something of an emotional hypochondriac — if I wasn’t happy, something was wrong.
Suddenly my very human experiences, like sadness, anger, and anxiety, were all “problems” that needed to be “fixed.” I had this unreasonable expectation that, if I worked hard enough, I could minimize the presence of every other emotion to become capital-H “Happy.”
That’s not exactly the healthiest mindset, if you really think about it.
Ask anybody what they want out of life, and they’ll probably tell you the same thing I told my therapist all those years ago — it’s about being happy, isn’t it?
But happiness is just one emotion. And humans aren’t built to experience one emotion and one emotion only.
We internalize this idea that life is about sustaining something that can’t actually be sustained… but we pretend that, with the right attitude, it can be.
And then we wonder why we keep getting let down. It just doesn’t leave room for the whole spectrum of emotions every one of us is going to feel.
The thing is, if our goals for therapy (or recovery generally, or even life) are setting us up for failure, they aren’t really serving us.
In fact, they’re probably going to discourage us. This becomes doubly true when we’re talking about marginalized people, where societal circumstances basically make it impossible to be happy all of or even most of the time.
And if your goal for therapy is impossible? You might give up before you ever get to the good stuff.
The really paradoxical thing about mental health recovery is that the goals that lend themselves to happiness usually aren’t about happiness at all, at least directly.
A lot of people find that the less they focus on “being happy,” the more they’re able to make changes that contribute to their happiness.
Being happy with greater frequency and intensity just becomes this weird (and totally cool) side effect. At least, it was for me.
So, if you’re not going to therapy or living life to become happy, what’s the point? I started asking the same thing. And what I learned along the way kind of blew my mind wide open.
If you’re wondering what might be helpful to work toward (whether it’s with a therapist, a life coach, a spiritual guide, in a support group, or even as prompts for your journal), that’s what I’m here for.
Here are five goals that I’ve found to be especially important for therapy — and why “being happy” isn’t one of them.
Arguably every goal on this list circles back to this one. There’s an awesome TED talk by psychologist Emily Esfahani Smith unpacking this exact thing (I highly recommend it — it’s based off a book she wrote that’s rooted in her work in positive psychology, pulling not just from research, but also from philosophical and spiritual traditions).
We can’t be happy all of the time, but if we can create a greater sense of meaning, it gives us something even better — a life that feels worthwhile. It can motivate us to invest in ourselves, our communities, and our world in a way that doesn’t depend on whether or not we’re happy in a given moment.
In other words, it’s more sustainable. Smith outlines the key pillars of a more meaningful life by breaking it down into four categories:
I personally found belonging by joining groups in my local queer community and purpose by volunteering locally around causes I care about. I’ve found transcendence by going to concerts, becoming a drag performer (music and art have always made me feel like I’m a part of something bigger), and traveling a little more.
So, I do recognize that this requires a strong enough foundation on which to build. Luckily, a shift in goals can help us determine what exactly we’re working toward, which can inform what kind of support we need.
I’ve heard many times before that who we are is just a compilation of the stories we repeatedly tell ourselves — whether we realize that or not.
For the longest time, I’d written myself off as some neurotic, broken person who just needed to be “fixed.” And that deeply impacted how I treated myself and the choices that I made.
Working with a trusted therapist and even blogging about my experiences helped me construct an entirely different story for myself. In processing and unpacking my life experiences, I could see more clearly that I had done my best, learned from my mistakes, and emerged on the other side a stronger and more determined person.
I realized my identity was simply an interpretation of all the events I could remember. And as it turned out, there were many different ways to interpret those events that I’d never thought of.
Up until recently, I chose to interpret difficult events in my life as a reflection of my own inadequacy and failure, rather than a journey of personal growth and new insight. Practicing this reframing of my life, especially with a therapist, helped me construct a new story and a new appreciation for who I am and who I’ve become.
There’s actually plenty of research that backs this up, too: Internalized narratives play a big part in our overall satisfaction with life.
The tricky thing is, we’re not always aware of the stories we’re telling ourselves (the fish in the bowl doesn’t always see the water, after all).
But when we uncover these narratives and start to question where they came from and what we can learn from them, it can make a big difference in how we perceive ourselves (and by extension, how we feel and behave — cognitive behavioral therapy, anyone?).
I don’t believe for a minute that we “choose” to be happy or unhappy. I do believe, however, that brains are pretty malleable things — and with practice and support, we can find a different story to tell ourselves and learn to believe in it, too.
And if our identities are really just the interpretation of a life story, those interpretations can change our whole selves.
Our relationships play a big part in our day to day. I’m constantly amazed, as I do more work with a therapist, at how often I’ve gravitated toward toxic relationships without fully realizing it.
Recently, I wrote about one of my worst patterns as a people-pleaser. I suspect we’d be a lot more satisfied in life if we were more aware of these things, but that awareness takes work.
Being more aware of our relational patterns is an awesome goal, and it can wind up making us happier in the long run. It benefits ourselves, the people we care about, and the communities in which we live.
If you’re not sure where to start, here are some questions worth considering:
I wasn’t able to answer the second question at first, so I had to start being more mindful when I hung out with people. And let me tell you… it was mind-blowing to see how some of the people I invested in most made me feel worse.
This helped me to become more grateful for the generosity that I wasn’t always the best at noticing. It also made me aware of the relationships in which I was giving a lot more than I was receiving. (Relationships are rarely an equal transaction, but being mindful can help us make better decisions around where we want to invest our energy.)
I sat down and thought of three people who consistently make me feel good about myself. And no joke, I threw them in a group chat on Facebook, and now we get brunch together most weekends.
I even have a spreadsheet where I keep track of the relationships I’m nurturing. I can honestly say that my life improved instantly when I did this.
If you don’t have close friends or loved ones who hype you up or make you feel good, that’s also important to know. It might be time to start expanding your social circle, whether that’s online or off!
I’m by no means saying that pursuing happiness is totally futile! It’s important to do things that you love and bring happiness into your life.
Being happy is awesome, but being able to roll with the punches becomes really important at those times in which happiness isn’t feasible or possible (because your boss is the worst, or the president tweets again, or life just happens to suck for a while — it happens!).
When there’s a setback, how quickly do you bounce back? Are there ways you’d like to be able to take care of yourself but find are difficult to do? In other words, how often do you feel helpless or stuck, and are there opportunities to change that?
Rather than becoming unhappy and looking to “fix” it, berating myself for feeling negatively or getting flustered as I tried to figure out how I got there, I started accepting how I felt in the moment. After all, thoughts and feelings come and go, because that’s kind of how brains work (they are super imperfect meat machines, basically).
So while waiting for the clouds to pass, I started grounding myself in the moment and asking, “What can I do, right now, to make this moment a little better?”
Therapy, for me, has been the best route in learning new coping skills (along with antidepressants, because sometimes our brains need an assist). But I realize not everyone can access super great therapy (a rant for another day).
That’s why I’ve written about mental health apps that can teach you some new skills, shared many of my favorite self-care resources for those that might need it, and am a strong advocate for self-help books, online communities, and support groups. The internet can open up access to a lot of these things. Go forth and educate thyself!
Resilience is an important goal (or process, really). It allows us to live in a world that’s constantly changing and gives our brains permission to be the finicky and unpredictable things that they sometimes are.
Everyone on the planet has self-defeating patterns. I mean, I don’t necessarily have any research to back this up, but I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot with some regularity.
For example, some people with depression make themselves sad on purpose because it feels “safe” (I explain more about why in this post).
More often than not, the coping skills we developed when we were younger aren’t so great for the adult world. The rules and environment are completely different (and also, we likely just weren’t as skilled in general at taking care of ourselves — wisdom and experience and all that).
Recently I noticed just how much avoidance makes me miserable. I’d avoid things that stressed me out (like going to the dentist or answering important emails) without fully acknowledging that I was only prolonging my pain.
But here’s a fun discovery: The momentary discomfort of facing what stressed me out was a lot easier than the lengthy, drawn-out anxiety attack that occurred while I put things off.
The more I plugged my nose and walked through the stuff that I hated but needed to face, the easier and easier it became to tackle my stress. Don’t get me wrong — I hated every freaking minute of it with a fiery, burning passion… but that misery was temporary. Never addressing the problem, however, was permanent.
This might seem obvious to you (like, hello Sam, you’re how old and just now getting this?), but when we’re in the midst of it, we don’t always connect the dots.
We might also assume that we’re helpless or powerless despite the circumstances of our lives being very different (read about “learned helplessness theory” at some point, it can be really helpful to know about).
And oftentimes, to notice and break these patterns, we need help — because this stuff is ingrained and most likely exists for a very good reason.
In the past, these patterns might’ve made sense to minimize your immediate stress as much as possible. But I think most of us reach a point when those old tricks start to interfere with the longer-term stability we’re trying to achieve.
Learning more about these patterns, then, is what can help us start to unlearn them. And honestly? Every single person on the planet could benefit from working on that.
Remember, the stuff on this list is meant to give you a sense of direction as you work toward mental wellness. They aren’t destinations or achievements — they’re simply part of a larger process that some of us call “personal growth” and others simply call “life.”
It’s ongoing, but in therapy especially, it’s always good to set up some goalposts where you can.
My goalpost of “be happy” wasn’t working for me. But the moment I stopped expecting myself to be happy all the time, my life got a whole lot better (and calmer, really) in ways I didn’t expect. Things like purpose, growth, intimacy, and resilience made a bigger impact than “happiness” ever could.
We live in a world in which happiness is fleeting. It comes and goes. But the good news is, we can have meaningful lives — lives in which we grow and connect with others in meaningful ways — without being constantly happy.
Besides… no one needs that kind of pressure!
When we start thinking about happiness as the awesome byproduct of personal growth, rather than making happiness itself the goal that we chase, we wind up with a much stronger foundation for mental health.
And weirdly enough, when we’re not obsessed with happiness and so terrified of losing it, it becomes a lot easier to be happy — and appreciate it, too — than it ever was before.
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