Forget feelings: Why the pursuit of happiness is overrated
The key to happiness is positive thinking, we're often told. But a new book says we should say 'to heck with that.' (iko/shutterstock.com)
Published Thursday, November 19, 2015 6:00AM EST
The key to happiness lies in positive thinking, we’re told. If we look deep inside ourselves we can find a warrior within. If we strengthen our minds, we can strengthen our souls. If we embrace gratitude, we can bring an end to stress. And if none of those work, there are always antidepressants.
But a new book, cheekily titled “F*ck Feelings," says to heck with all of that.
Written by Dr. Michael Bennett, a Toronto-born, Harvard-trained psychiatrist, and his comedy-writer daughter, Sarah Bennett, “F*ck Feelings” is a refreshing, self-help book for those who have had it up to here with self-help books.
The pair take a tough-love approach to urge readers to abandon all the navel gazing and accept that sometimes, life is just hard. Some problems cannot be solved, so rather than talking about your feelings, focus on how to live with them.
“We don’t really reject feelings; I mean we’re not Vulcans,” Sarah Bennett tells CTVNews.ca from New York, “but we say f*ck feelings in terms of not letting your feelings guide everything.”
Yes, the book is peppered with plenty of salty language, but Bennett says such words often help jar people out of their ruts, like a slap in the face.
“When we say, f*ck your feelings, it resets the conversation,” she says.
Here are a few of the book’s key takeaways:
You aren’t in complete control of your happiness
The problem with many self-help books is that so many insist that you are responsible for your own happiness and that if you project positivity, then positive things will fall into place.
“That’s a ridiculous and dangerous way of thinking, because there are so many factors in life we cannot control,” Sarah says.
It doesn’t matter how much you will yourself to take a positive attitude; sometimes bad things just happen -- like, say, a bird poops on your head the minute you walk out the door.
“You can’t control that bird or its bowels, but now you’re angry and you’re blaming yourself that you can’t stay in a positive mindset,” she says.
So many of the aspects of the hand we’ve been dealt in life are beyond anyone’s power to change, Bennett says. That’s why instead of trying harder to fix them and beating ourselves up when we fail, we would do better to try to understand what can be changed and what can’t.
“My father’s approach is really like the serenity prayer: accept what you cannot change.”
Some pain can’t be lifted
There are some situations that will never get better. It could be a grief that will never lift, or a person or memory that will always be a source of pain. After 30 years of practising psychiatry, Dr. Bennett says there are also some mental conditions that can’t be fixed either.
“Depression is not curable,” he says bluntly from Brookline, Mass. “It’s like arthritis: it can be managed but it tends to come back.”
But by acknowledging these sources of long-term pain and grief and accepting that they are going to be a part of our lives, they becomes easier to deal with, he says.
“You won’t see yourself as a ‘depressive,’ but instead as someone who fights depression from time to time,” he says.
When true happiness can’t be achieved, we can still find ways to manage our pain. And we can take pride from realizing that we are doing the best we can with what we have to bear.
“Success doesn’t mean happiness. Success is being proud of what you’re doing when you can’t be happy,” Dr. Bennett says.
Let yourself off the hook a little
All of us have things about ourselves we don’t like or that we believe stand in the way of happiness. Maybe it’s our short temper, our scatter-brained disorganization, our tendency to get overly emotional.
But so many of these aspects of ourselves can’t be changed no matter how hard we try, says Dr. Bennett, because they are simply a part of our brain’s wiring. And the more we try to change them in the pursuit for happiness, ironically, the unhappier we will become.
“if you want to improve yourself in some way and you just can’t... you wind up hating yourself and doing even worse,” he says.
Dwelling on all the ways you’ve failed yourself won’t help. But setting realistic self-improvement goals can, says Dr. Bennett.
“But it must begin with self-acceptance.”
You are still responsible for your reactions
Just because you accept that you have certain limitations don’t mean you can let yourself off the hook, Sarah Bennett says.
“You can’t say, ‘Well, I’m a procrastinator, that’s just who I am, so f*ck it.’ It’s about saying, I know i have this problem, and I have to find techniques to manage it,” she says.
The Bennetts advise that instead of promising to control all your negativity, promise to not let it control you. Set such goals as: I will act decently in spite of the way I really feel. I will learn my triggers for bad behaviours and find ways to avoid them.
And then there's this gem of advice from the book: “Get to know your inner asshole so as to reduce the likelihood it becomes outer.”