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The Myth that Happiness is Normal

Steven Topper, LCPC

On any given day we’ll be asked one question that, for the most part, afford only three acceptable answers. When I get asked, “How are you?” I know that I can say: I’m great; I’m good; or I’m alright (though for that last one, make sure there’s a bit of cheer and smile in my voice!). It’s all well meaning, people don’t want to bother others, often we’re only being asked because the asker is being polite, and there’s seldom time to sit down with someone and actually talk. This is an elucidating component to a myth propagated by our society that to be normal is to be healthy and happy. This myth leads to all sorts of problems, one of which is that people feel there needs to be something, “Wrong,” to go to therapy or that sadness and anxiety are, “Bad.” However, when we explore this myth further, we can see how limiting and judgmental it is, and how to move toward a more accurate understanding of the human experience.

After decades of research on human behavior and therapy, renowned psychologist Steve Hayes famously said, “The single most remarkable fact of humans existence is how hard it is for humans to be happy.” Suffering is a basic building-block of human life. All of us can remember times when we were hurt, sad, lonely, terrified. These experiences shape us and often give meaning to our lives. And yet when we look at sitcoms and pop-culture, there is minimal honest conversation around this aspect of our lives. Instead, we have taken from the medical model the idea that being healthy and well is normal. When something’s wrong, we go to treatment, and once we are cured, we move on with our normal lives. Except, sadness isn’t a broken bone. Anxiety is not a sprained ankle. These are necessary components to the experience of being human. When we treat them as a sign that something is wrong, we inadvertently subvert the benefit they may provide. And further, our lives shift into avoiding those unwanted emotions as opposed to living authentically.

With this, people often feel shame and guilt around their psychological distress, and are embarrassed by going to therapy. All of these tendencies to treat pain and suffering as wrong are an attempt to ensure that all of us are happy. And yet, it seems that in our yearning to be happy, we have constructed frameworks that make happiness nearly unattainable. Many of us, when we have joy in our lives have the thought: How long will this last? This thought follows from the myth because once we have what we’re supposed to, the goal becomes protection. All of this is to say, what if we could bring willingness to experience the “good” and the “bad,” knowing that there is no healthy normal state of wellbeing. All of us are struggling (Hint: it’s what connects us to each other!). Sometimes those struggles feel small and menial. Other times those struggles can feel daunting and terrifying. Either way, if we can recognize that, “It is not normal to be totally well,” it frees us up to judge our experiences far less harshly, and opens us up to create new relationships with the pain in our lives.

If you’ve found that you could use someone to talk to, or your struggles are getting in the way of how you’d like to live, it may be useful to try counseling. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled therapists today!

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