[Note: This blog sometimes uses singular and sometimes uses plural pronouns to refer to the writer(s).]
I used to be a teacher. Maybe that is why a blogging platform is appealing, because it allows me to try to teach. This is one of the only ways I try to contribute to positive change in a sphere outside ourself, and writing this blog definitely has me as a primary audience.
The field of Positive Psychology says people pursue happiness in 3 different ways:
- Pleasure seeking
- Engagement seeking
- Meaning seeking
Living a meaningful life is the gold standard. Numerous studies have found people are more fulfilled in a life with purpose, such as raising a family they love and/or working in a career that they feel makes a real difference.
Engaging activities are ones in which we lose ourselves, a concept referred to as “flow.” When we are in flow, such as with a hobby or creative project, we do not wish to be anywhere else, and that is a form of happiness. Engagement by itself can be disconnecting, isolating, and so it is best to be tempered with the other forms of happiness: meaning and pleasure.
Pleasure seeking is probably the form of happiness most people pursue most often. Doing something with an immediate feel-good reward, such as watching an episode (or ten) of a favorite show (which is actually dis-engaging), enjoying a scrumptious dessert, and shopping for a new outfit.
These pleasures are short-lived and often lack deeper meaning and so stringing together endless pleasurable events is both exhausting and not very effective at making us consistently happy. One can see that spending too much time watching media, eating too many treats, and shopping too frequently–or even doing all these things in combination–don’t add up to much. They are relatively devoid of meaning, even if they provide some temporary pleasure.
A combination of these forms of happiness is likely to suit each of us though meaning and engagement are considered more fulfilling and durable than pleasure-seeking.
We are really struggling because we lack a meaningful life. We lack purpose. We lack passion. Since we do not work at a job (due to PTSD and our other related disorders of DID and OCD), we have tried to make being a good parent and spouse one of two primary goals, the other being to heal ourselves.
One challenge is that it’s hard to make yourself passionate about something. You can make it your purpose: we have little else to focus on other than (1) helping our family via washing and folding laundry, doing dishes, cooking meals, keeping the house a comfortable temperature, giving supportive advice, and trying not to yell; and (2) healing ourself, which involves four days per week of mental health therapy, our emergent meditation practice, fostering cooperation internally among our fragmented selves, practicing being our most resourced self, and nurturing the physical body via healthy habits.
Being with other people–even or especially our family–is a challenge. We are highly empathic, meaning it is a challenge to draw energetic boundaries that remind us we are a separate person from each of our children and from our spouse. Leaving the house is also a challenge because hyperarousal has us seeking danger in every loud noise, every sudden movement. Our driving safety has deteriorated significantly, which we’re mostly keeping to ourself out of fear of losing the privilege of driving to therapy on our own. It would be both humbling (humiliating?) and exacerbating to require a chauffeur for therapy.
Passion? Our ties with family and self and so complicated and double-edged that we don’t feel passionate about them. Our therapists say we demonstrate love for family and self by the efforts we make. Maybe because we have such self-doubt and shame, we see ourselves as incompetent and so can’t admit to passions for family and healing. Or maybe they are not our passions. It’s hard to know and painful to consider.
Pleasure is not something we tend to experience. When something good happens, our bodies may feel positive emotions. If the emotions persist more than a few minutes, they turn to negative emotions, such as dread, trepidation, exhaustion. That happened the other night when Older Child was accepted into college. The whole family whooped and hollered. We were so excited, which turned after a few minutes to dread, then relief at the college admission, then exhaustion at the whole endeavor.
The same would happen before any vacation: anticipation would simply manifest as anxiety and dread. So we learned to dissociate from it. Since we avoid pleasure and we avoid pain, we wind up with numbness as the gold standard. And that is not healthy in the long-term and definitely precludes happiness, including a meaningful life.
One of our three therapists says that our joy’s turning to dread has a precursor in the sexual abuse we suffered as a child. Our body biologically thrilled to the sensations of the abuse, and then we experienced the fear of being discovered, and then we suffered terror from the threats to ourself and our famiy by one of the perpetrators. We have been reliving this pleasure-turns-to-pain cycle for forty years, and so it will not be quickly remedied.
As a result, pleasure seeking is not effective for us as a means to happiness. Meaning is also lacking at present. That leaves engagement as a potential source of happiness.
We do have a few hobbies; namely, birdwatching and making videos of what we see. We birdwatch with Older Child, sometimes as often as once per week. We watch the birds at our bird feeder every day. Even that turns negative because OCD obsessively counts and records species, which detracts from aesthetic enjoyment of the birds.
Happiness for us is complicated. This is not meant as a complaint, though we’re not exactly reveling in the present truth.
We have been pushing the word “and” in our blog posts, as in, “and what else is true?”
Another key word therapists persistently add to our therapy is “yet.” We don’t have a meaningful life yet. We don’t have regular sources of pleasure yet. We don’t have a consistent flow of engagement yet.
Words can exclude, can close a door. And words can allow for infinite possibility.
There is a real difference between the implications of these two sentences, which have only a one-word difference.
- Our life does not have meaning for us.
- Our life does not have meaning for us yet.
May you not be discouraged in yetting your three forms of happiness!