As a younger therapist, I often used “happy” and “healthy” as markers of progress, or as a way to demarcate what behaviors should be adjusted and which we should build on. Now, as an older, wiser therapist, I tend to use “healthy” and “sustainable” as those helpful markers. This isn’t specifically that happiness has become less important, but rather that sustainability has become more important. So, let’s dive into what changed over the years and how to apply these standards to help set realistic expectations.
First off, I still think happiness is a good thing, and not even a bad goal as long as we know what happiness actually means. Happiness is a temporary state, not a permanent space that we occupy. For a while I tried to use contentment in place of happiness, but that didn’t really fit either, because contentment may last longer than happiness, it still is not a permanent state. Our brains are constantly processing new stimuli, there is very little that is “set” or going to stay permanent in our brains. We are experiential by nature, as new experiences and stimuli create changes in our neural pathways. So, we need to understand that not only is happiness fleeting and temporary, but what makes us feel happiness also changes over time. You at 8, 18, 28, and 68 all want and need vastly different things to feel happy, let alone contentment. And we just aren’t wired to stay happy. Our brains weigh heavily on things going wrong as a way to not have bad stuff happen to us. Our brains are wired to survive, so a negative outcome gets more focus than a positive, because we need to avoid that negative outcome in order to stay alive. That’s hardwired into us, we have to practice how to have gratitude and create space for contentment. And yes, I do think society pulls us towards even more negativity than we are naturally wired for, research shows over and over again that we put more weight on the bad rather than the good. I see different reframes of unhappiness, that it adds contrast, it helps us appreciate the good times, but that all misses the point that we aren’t wired to be happy all the time, and the goal of happiness isn’t to stay happy. We just want to be present and available for the happiness that does happen. We can work towards playing the odds enough to shift things towards having happiness happen more often, and create an environment for happiness to exist, but we can’t make ourselves be happy and stay happy.
So, with that in mind, sustainable links well with healthy because when we are engaging in healthy behaviors that we are able to do consistently, we create an environment where happiness is more likely to exist. We can intentionally shift our potential outcomes to be more positive the more healthy we are more often. Back pain, chronic fatigue from stress, low energy from a poor diet, all these things take up space in our brain and resources from our body. If we have healthy, sustainable habits, we can mitigate some of these normal life contexts and be available to feel and be present in our own happy experiences. Maybe we have a fun date night with our partner, we get a promotion, our kid hits a homerun, whatever, but we’re worried about work, or we had a flat tire earlier in the day, or we haven’t heard back from a friend for a few days, we carry that stress into an otherwise happy context and might miss the happy feeling. Or we get partial happiness, and it is even more short-lived than it could have been. So, healthy and sustainable doesn’t create the happiness, but it creates the environment where we can maximize the time we get to feel happy, which is already finite. Now, you clever readers out there already connected the dots, but in essence, we’re still tracking happiness as progress. Because if we hit a good consistent baseline with healthy and sustainable, then we will be happy more often. It’s just statistics at that point, but we’re focusing on the process more than the outcome, which is important when we’re doing good goal setting. The outcome is to be happy, but since we can’t control happiness, we focus on the process to get to more frequent and more intense happiness by creating space for that happiness to pop up. Neat!