I’ve been pondering the idea of happiness a lot lately. Perhaps, it is because there are so many books out these days about the subject. Where does it come from? Who has it? Why do they have it? When do they have it? How do they have it? How can I get it? And why in the hell am I or do I feel like I am being negative when I really don’t mean to be? Why does my family look at me and my husband as though we come from Pluto? Why is it so difficult to be direct and compassionate? Why do I feel like shedding this passive aggressive skin is like molting off layers and layers of my own skin? And why in the hell do I revert back to this mode of communication when I least expect it!? Why can’t I just be happy all the time? I have lots of questions about this fickle maiden. She is so enticing and ever changing.
These are questions we all think of, dwell on. Happiness is elusive for some but abundant for others. Why? What makes us so different from the next person? Is it our socioeconomic status? Is it our education? Our sense of connection? Whether or not we attend church on a weekly basis? Do we all need to sign up for yoga classes or attend a week retreat at an ashram in the mountains of Colorado? Does happiness depend on the kind of status symbols you have? What about how much liquid cash? A good retirement? A secure job? A “good family”? Does your ancestry have anything do with it? Your learned behaviors? What about the behaviors you have unlearned? Are there any behaviors you have unlearned? Or does it all boil down to your self esteem/personal well-being?
Human needs can be defined as: to feel safe and secure, to be accepted by your parents/care-givers/significant others, to feel competent and effective, to have a sense of being “ok” in the world, and to have a sense of worth. None of these needs say a thing about money or education or even the stereotype we fit into. Trust me, we all fit into a stereotype. If you disagree keep it to yourself, I don’t really care about arguing the point.
I work with drug addicts. People who have been judged, stigmatized, and even have come to the opinion that they are, for the lack of a better phrase, a waste of good air. For years, sometimes decades, they have believed this. Their stupors are briefly interrupted by moments of clarity that are so painful that they seek to anesthetize themselves once again and fall into a thick fog over and over and over again. They can be out for several hours. They can spend their days chasing and hustling for the blissful oblivion only to have a moments reprieve. But once they find it, all is right and their brand of happiness drops them to their knees. They have finally reached the days nirvana. This does not happen always for the drug addict. They do not always find nirvana each and every time they use. Just like each and every time you are happy you do not stay happy.
Everything in life is not on a continuous reinforcement schedule. This includes everything in our lives that we use to avoid pain. Even those of us who do not use, do not drink, or involve ourselves with chemicals have various periods of calm and periods of pain. We think our bosses or spouses think terribly of us and we go out and do something or say something that takes the pain of not being accepted away and we are right as rain until the next moment of self-loathing. We do certain behaviors or think certain thoughts in order to get rid of the pain or to numb it. Positive and Negative reinforcements happen through out our days.Every day. Stop and think about when you last had a not-so-good feeling and what you did to get rid of it. How many times in a day does this occur?
some definitions before I proceed:
Positive Reinforcement is when you get a reward for doing something. Something is given to you.You do the dishes and your wife says thank you. You make a good dinner and your husband raves about it. You are bound to do this again and again looking for that praise. That acknowledgment. That acceptance.
Negative Reinforcement is when you feel pain (physically or psychologically) and you do something or think something to take it away.
Someone makes fun of you and you get angry (justifiably so) and you haul off and punch them or tell them off. You immediately feel better for “standing up for yourself.”
Because what you are doing right now, the behaviors you engage in every day, all stem from not having those needs *points up* met. And so when those needs are not met we are going to find a way to fill them. I hate to makes us all sound like pavlovian dogs, but where needs and pleasure and pain are concerned we are. Some of us mangier then others, but dogs just the same. Some of us learned to be helpless. Some learned that strangers were bad, but uncle Joe was worse. Some of us had fairly normal childhoods, but all of us had some kind of trauma in our childhoods. It could be that your mother ignored you when she was on the phone and she was always on the phone. It could be that Dad suddenly hated you when you hit puberty and your relationship had never been the same since. All of those things, as little as they may be, are traumatic. Because, remember as a child, your world, your reality is MUCH smaller, you have much less to compare the actions or behaviors of others.
But what if you could return to your childhood and watch it play out through your adult eyes? (some childhood experiences may be better off left alone!) You would more than likely see the roots of your own pain. The roots of your need to be accepted. The roots of your own addictions, behaviors, actions, lies, and intrigues. You would see that now you have a choice in the matter. As a 5 year old child you were not able to say “Mom, you suck! You are ignoring me and causing me emotional trauma that could last the rest of my life.” But as an adult you can. Would this improve your chances at happiness? Would this assist you in reaching your happiness quota for the day? Perhaps, but then there are those pesky reinforcement schedules to contend with.
How do we break those? We don’t, we can’t we will always be rewarded and if we deny ourselves those rewards, what would happen then to happiness? What we break is our learned behaviors. Our misguided, questionable, or downright bad behaviors that have given us rewards. We take the good with the bad and keep trying until we are how we want to be. Who we care to be.