Martha Beck: Experiencing Pain Is the Only Way to Achieve Happiness
Have you ever noticed how many beloved songs suggest that we have absolutely no control over our emotions? (One common message is "If you don't love me, I'll stay in a fetal position forever.") And yet other beloved songs imply just the opposite—that controlling our emotions should be as easy as blinking. Forget your troubles; come on, get happy! If you can't be with the one you love, honey, love the one you're with! Put on a happy face! Don't worry, be happy!
If you truly believe in the helpless-victim songs, take your little curled-up-hedgehog self to a therapist, who will help you see that you do have the ability to influence your emotions. But does this ability go as far as the happy-face songs imply? Is it possible to simply grab your emotional bootstraps and yank yourself into joy? Short answer: no. Longer answer: kind of.
If it were possible to simply will happiness, you and I would both be in ecstasy right now and people wouldn't be selling Ecstasy on the street. Despite our ever-growing arsenal of cheer-up drugs (legal and illegal), "the brain releases happy chemicals only in limited bursts, for specific aims," says psychology writer Loretta Breuning, PhD. "If you expect all the happy chemicals all the time, you're going to be disappointed." People who try to white-knuckle themselves into perpetual glee end up singing things like I'm dying inside, and nobody knows it but me. And when the dam of denial finally breaks, whoa, Nellie! Here comes a flood of panic, rage and despair.
So no, you can't stay happy by just insisting on it, any more than you can will yourself healthy by thinking positively while guzzling grain alcohol between cigarettes. Choosing to be happy, like choosing to be healthy, means committing to actions that create those states. The good news is that the actions required for happiness are surprisingly simple. Just as weight-loss advice basically boils down to "eat less, move more," happiness requires just two steps. They'll sound counterintuitive, but people who really seem to have made themselves permanently happy—your Buddhas, your Jesuses, your Yodas—all recommend some version of the following prescription: Allow your pain to exist. Dissolve your pain.
At first, this sounds patently ridiculous. Feel pain? Isn't that the definition of unhappiness? Only if you define happiness as the absence of all stress. But that definition doesn't wash. Up to a point, discomfort, uncertainty and struggle are deeply compelling; otherwise, why would we watch movies that make us shriek with fear, weep with sorrow, or rise up in anger against injustice? The fact is, those feelings are part of life's richness and beauty.
Of course, actual suffering is very different from drama that takes place on the silver screen. You can't just watch your own experience like a movie...or can you? Actually, this is exactly what enlightened people suggest, and a growing body of evidence is proving them right. Mindfulness and meditation—simply focusing on the present moment, observing one's feelings without judging or reacting to them in any way—have been shown to increase neural density in parts of the brain related to well-being and raise the happiness set point that determines how we typically feel.
Clinical psychologist and author Steven Hayes, PhD, asks readers to imagine an emotion machine that has two dials, one labeled "PAIN," the other "WILLINGNESS," as in willingness to suffer. Any sensible person cranks both those dials down to zero. Unfortunately, the pain button doesn't seem to work: No matter how far we turn it down, we still hurt. So we read self-help books and munch antidepressants like Pac-Women. These things might help us deal with pain, but they won't get rid of it. This method just never works. Bizarrely, here's what does: turning the willingness-to-suffer dial up to maximum.
Don't take Hayes's word for it; try an exercise. Search your mind for a topic you prefer not to think about: your dog's failing health, an argument with your spouse, the highly personal photos you accidentally posted on Facebook. Notice how you push away your sadness, anger, embarrassment. Accept this resistance. Let it be as it is. Paradoxically, you may feel it lessen slightly.
Now, take five minutes to let yourself feel your true emotions about the forbidden subject. Don't take any action—please. Just allow your emotions. Write them down: "I'm so angry [sad, nervous, embarrassed], and right now I'm just going to let myself feel it." If you don't resist at all, the pain will come in awful but brief surges because just like happiness hormones, the chemicals that cause misery tend to be short-lived. According to neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor, PhD, it takes only 90 seconds for a wave of emotion to pass through us. This is the same length as a typical contraction in the final stages of childbirth. Coincidence? I think not. If you can allow enough 90-second intervals of emotional agony, the pain will eventually stop, and you'll find you've given birth to a wiser, more compassionate version of yourself.
So why, if emotional pain can be fleeting, do many people suffer for years, a lifetime? The answer: thoughts. Animals get upset when some negative stimulus—a predator, an indeterminate loud noise—is present, but when the bad thing leaves, they tend to relax. Humans, on the other hand, can be lying safe in bed but feel absolutely terrified, enraged or devastated about things that are present only in our imagination.
Many wisdom traditions teach that painful thoughts are never ultimately true. According to Buddha, tormenting thoughts are rooted in illusion. Jesus taught that God, truth and peace are all one thing; it follows that an unpeaceful thought can't be truth. Writer Byron Katie, a modern master of thought dissolving, was wretchedly miserable until she began questioning all her painful thoughts with rigorous honesty. "The mind's natural condition is peace," she writes. "Then a thought enters, you believe it, and the peace seems to disappear.... When you question the thought...the story falls away.... Peace is who you are without a story."
After questioning a few million of my own painful thoughts, I haven't found one I can prove beyond a reasonable doubt. My ego hates this. It wants its mopey ballads, war chants, heavy-metal tantrums. My ego argues that if it can fuss enough, the universe will finally relent and give it everything it desires. Your own ego probably wants the same thing. Good luck with that.
If you're so tired of hurting that you're willing to let go of your favorite painful beliefs, you can dissolve them with steely-eyed insistence on factual evidence. Let's look at some common human thoughts, as represented—you guessed it—in a few popular songs. I've had all these thoughts myself, and then I've rigorously checked them against concrete external reality. Here's a short version:
HYPOTHESIS: Ain't no sunshine when she's gone.
OBSERVATION: She's gone. There's the sun.
HYPOTHESIS: I can't live if living is without you.
OBSERVATION: And yet here I sit, eating a sandwich.
HYPOTHESIS: Love stinks.
OBSERVATION: That's just silly. Love is the best.
I could go on (and on, and on), but you get my drift. Now it's your turn. Whatever devastating top ten hit your mind's constantly playing—"I'm Not Enough," "No One Wants Me," "I'll Always Hurt Like This"—put your ego aside and test it with the pitiless honesty of a scientist. Any evidence at all that you are enough, or that anyone wants you in any way, or that there may be any pauses in your pain, disprove the hypotheses. And hear this, loud and clear: If you can't know a thought is true for an absolute certainty, it doesn't pass the test. Reasonable doubt means the thought doesn't get to rule your life.
Eventually, most painful thoughts dissolve in the light of this uncompromising truth. What's left is not some happy-face ditty, but a vast, sweet, silent openness. Many emotions flow through this openness, some happy, some not. But the openness itself is who you are—and it's unfathomably, indescribably blissful. Dissolving pain is scary and hard, but will get easier with time. The openness is a discipline—and it may take your whole life to perfect.
Some songs tell this truth, and singing them to myself has gotten me through a few truly awful experiences. Try this one in your own tough times:
It's the heart afraid of breaking that never learns to dance.
It's the dream afraid of waking that never takes the chance.
It's the one who won't be taken who cannot seem to give.
And the soul afraid of dying that never learns to live.
Lean into every emotion you fear, let your ego die as you dissolve your painful thoughts, and watch how joy arises. Then, my friend, don't worry, be happy.
The good news is that the actions required for happiness are surprisingly simple.
Martha Beck's latest book is The Martha Beck Collection: Essays for Creating Your Right Life, Volume One (Martha Beck Inc.).