How do we depend on ourselves for happiness and tranquillity without any external factors? How do we stop making other people responsible for our happiness and be at peace with ourselves? This is something I’ve struggled with since I was a child.
Denise, 26, U.S.
Thank you for your question. Being happy, content, and having tranquillity of mind that’s not dependent on external circumstances can be a rather difficult state to achieve. I believe there are a couple of reasons for this. The first has to do with the human condition itself and the other has to do with happiness and peace of mind. I’ll address human nature first, and then happiness and peace of mind, or tranquillity.
Humans are, for the most part, social animals. From birth, we’re in relationships with others. This means that most people function at their best when they’re connected to a caring, loving community of people.
When we were infants, our caretakers rocked us when we were upset, fed us when we were hungry, and smiled, laughed and interacted with us. Studies have shown that when a mother stops interacting with her child and just stares blankly at them, the child will try to get the mother to respond for another minute or so. However, if the mother just continues to stare and avoids interaction, the child will become visibly distressed and start to cry. These interactions are of vital importance for healthy growth.
Oftentimes, if there’s disruption in these components of growth during childhood, or if there are other significantly unhealthy behaviours occurring within the child’s home, then learning to be by oneself can be difficult. Indeed, if a person is fundamentally unhappy with themselves, then being alone is extremely difficult, because they have no one else to focus on or distract themselves with.
This is one of the main reasons people will stay in horrible relationships. Complain as they may, being in a relationship that makes them miserable is better than being alone.
Liking who we are
So, one of the main factors involved in being self-reliant in our happiness is to actually like who we are. When we generally like who we are, we’re not trying to escape from ourselves. If we don’t like who we are, we look to others or things to distract us so we don’t have to look at ourselves.
What does “being happy” even mean?
My recommendation to clients who come to me seeking happiness is to stop seeking happiness. In my opinion, the goal of “being happy” is problematic and will only end in disappointment.
What does “being happy” even mean? Does it mean the absence of any uncomfortable feelings or emotions? My two sons are now in college. Having them leave and be away for extended periods is painful at times. Yet, I’m extremely proud of them and very happy that they’re starting their new lives. The pain I feel when I miss them is an inherent part of the happiness I find in watching them grow into strong, intelligent, trustworthy, hardworking young men.
Trait or state?
Here’s where a distinction needs to be made between happiness as a trait and happiness as a state. In psychology, traits are considered more stable and long-term. States, on the other hand, are more temporary and can change from day to day, hour to hour, or even minute to minute. With my sons, my happiness is a trait; it’s long-term, stable and endures over time.
However, when I miss them and experience sadness, the sadness is a state. I’m temporarily sad because I miss them, but this state of sadness will soon change and essentially dissipate, as my focus and attention is placed on other things in life. When thinking of happiness in this manner, I’m actually able to experience a state of sadness within my trait of happiness, which is more stable and long-lasting.
So the first question you must ask yourself is whether you’re seeking state happiness, which comes and goes and can change from moment to moment, or seeking trait happiness, which is more stable and enduring? If you’re seeking an enduring state of happiness, then you’re seeking something unrealistic, unrealizable and overall, very unhealthy.
How do we achieve trait happiness if happiness isn’t supposed to be the goal?
Consider the following exchange founding psychologist Alfred Adler had with a client:
Adler claimed he could cure anyone of mental illness in just fourteen days if they would just do what he told them to do. One day a woman who was extremely depressed came to see Adler. He told her, “I can cure you of your depression in just fourteen days if you will follow my advice.”
She was not very enthusiastic when she asked, “What do you want me to do?”
Adler replied, “If you will do one thing for someone else every day for fourteen days, at the end of that time your depression will be gone.”
She objected. “Why should I do something for someone else, when no one ever does anything for me?”
Adler jokingly responded, “Well, maybe it will take you twenty-one days.” He went on to add, “If you can’t think of anything you are willing to do for someone else, just think of what you could do if you felt like it.”
Adler knew that if she would even think about doing something for someone else, she would be on her way toward improvement.
Adler’s words are hyperbolic or exaggerated, and not meant to be taken literally. However, his underlying message is that if we turn our focus to the needs of others, we’ll feel better ourselves.
Here’s where the paradox of happiness becomes most evident: the more we focus on ourselves, the more unhappy we tend to be; the more we focus on others, the more happy we tend to be.
I once worked with a client who was extremely focused on everyone else meeting her needs, and extremely depressed because they weren’t. I told her that even if we lined up a million people to tell her how wonderful she was, after the thousandth person had finished, she’d turn and look for “Person 1,001.” She agreed. In other words, no one was capable of meeting her needs—only she was!
Happiness is the result of a meaningful life
In saying this, my intention isn’t to suggest that you’re a selfish person who demands everyone else meet your needs. What I’m saying is that if the focus of your goal is happiness, then you likely won’t experience happiness. The goal can’t be happiness; it must be how well and how much you try to make others happy and/or contribute to the betterment of others’ lives.
Happiness is a by-product, not the product. Happiness is the result of a meaningful life in which a person seeks to help others and ease their suffering. In Buddhism, before and after meditation practice, all the benefits that are gained are offered for the betterment of others. The goal of achieving enlightenment is sought only so the enlightened individual can help others who are suffering. It’s all done out of compassion for others. Similarly, Jesus told his followers to “die” for themselves and take up the cross of others (bear the suffering of others).
Focusing on the pain of others
Consider the following story:
Research supports this intervention. Sean Mackey, chief of the division of Pain Management at Stanford University’s Neuroscience and Pain Lab, has conducted studies that demonstrate significant decreases in the level of pain felt when participants focused on those they loved and cared about.
Finding meaning in something greater than ourselves
I believe living a meaningful life is also a necessary component of happiness, and that the meaningfulness we discover must be something greater than ourselves. In a sense, we must lose our individual identity and allow it to merge with a larger group or cause.
We can see the power of this process working every day, in both negative and positive ways. On the negative side, people can get caught up in a mob mentality and commit crimes that, by themselves, they’d never commit. Those caught up in the emotional fervour of a powerful mob have later testified that they didn’t know what came over them or why they acted as they did—they were simply caught up in the moment.
Consider what happened in Egypt in 2011
At that time, Christians were being systematically targeted and attacked by Islamic militants. More attacks were announced against any Christians who were seen celebrating Christmas Eve mass. Other Muslims declared that they’d also show up at the Christmas Eve mass, where they’d stand and protect the Christians.
On Christmas Eve, thousands of Muslims showed up at the mass and created a large circle around the Christians, using their own bodies as protection against any who wished to harm the small Christian gathering.
“We either live together, or we die together,” declared Mohamed El-Sawy, a local Muslim businessman.
“This is not about us and them. We are one. … and I am standing with the Copts [Coptic Christians] because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together,” were the words of Muslim student Dalia Mustafa.
That same year, during other protests in Egypt, as Muslims knelt in prayer, making themselves vulnerable to the opposing protesters, hundreds of Christians formed a circle around them, offering their bodies as shields to protect the Muslims as they prayed.
The focus of both the Muslims and the Christians, in these situations, wasn’t on the self. Rather, both groups were focused on the well-being of others and on a cause that was greater than themselves, individually. As Mustafa stated, “This is not about us and them. We are one.” Again, research supports the belief that group cohesion and a sense of belonging are fundamental components of health and happiness.
According to Gregory M. Walton, professor and researcher at Yale University, “Belonging is primal, fundamental to our sense of happiness and well-being. … Our interests, motivation, health and happiness are inextricably tied to the feeling that we belong to a greater community that may share common interests and aspirations.”
Communities don’t have to be religious or faith-based to offer the benefits described. A person can find meaning and a sense of belonging in many different social activities, such as working with the homeless, volunteering at an animal shelter or supporting the local Red Cross.
Happiness is a choice
The secret can be conveyed in only four words: happiness is a choice. We can simply choose to be happy. Here’s another secret: to enhance your ability to simply choose to be happy, let go of all the demands you’re insisting must be met before you can experience happiness. Accept what reality and life presents you. Does this mean you have to feel good about all of it? No. But remember, any bad feelings will pass as we live in openness to life and its unfolding.
To sum it all up
Again, I highly suggest that you move away from making happiness and peace of mind a goal. Rather, focus your goals on ways you can help others and become part of a larger community that’s focused on improving the lives of humans and/or other living things.
Instead of focusing on not being dependent on others, focus on learning how to comfort yourself in any given situation. When life presents problems or doesn’t meet your expectations, concentrate on relaxing, breathing, smiling and accepting life as it’s presenting itself. Discover meaning that’s greater than yourself and find a way to connect and contribute. Trust yourself.
This will all take time, as growth always does. But, as Alfred Adler stated, if you do this, you’ll discover one day that you’re happy, and that happiness will be a result of your effort to help another person or thing without expecting anything in return.
Happiness, self-dependence and peace of mind can all be found in our efforts to focus on others, serve others and become part of a caring community.