Why it’s not normal to be happy – and what you should do instead…

by Karen Amos

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently – around happiness.  Actually, that’s not exactly true – I’ve been reading about how so many of us have drunk the ‘happiness Kool Aid’ and ironically, find ourselves miserable that we’re failing at happiness.  As an occasionally grumpy, middle-aged Yorkshire woman, I find this fascinating.

Recent publications, such as Bad Therapy, The Antidote and The Anxious Generation are showing that for many of us, modern living standards have never been better, yet increasing numbers of young people and adults find themselves so unhappy they resort to therapy, including medication.  The question surely is, if this is such an effective cure, why are people still unhappy?

Many years ago I was a student nurse.  There are many stand outs from my training, good and bad, but one that changed my life was a sentence uttered by a lecturer on Mental Health…

‘The most you can expect is to be reasonably content most of the time.’

That’s it.  And it profoundly changed the way I viewed my world and my expectations.  To the extent that I am – reasonably content most of the time.  So to that lecturer, wherever you are – thank you.

This may seem a bit lack-lustre for a coach, I admit.  After all, aren’t we meant to be uber positive and seeking Nirvana-like states of happiness and success?  Well some are I guess, but not me.  I’m about doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I do believe there is a right time to seek therapy.  I refer clients to specialist therapists if I find we’re addressing something that’s out of my area of expertise.  In fact, I have sought counselling on occasions at certain points in my life and regularly use psychoanalytical models with my clients to help them make sense of their world.

But there is a danger in rumination.  We won’t make ourselves or others resilient to the pressures of life by constantly going over the past and looking inwards.

So what is the answer?

I believe the answer lies in a stoical approach to coaching.  This isn’t the ‘British stiff upper lip’ version, but the true version of Stoicism that says…

In life, circumstances will continue to challenge us, but it is within our gift to decide how we will respond to them.

Often coaching is seen as a bit ‘Pollyanna – all in the garden is rosy’, which is why many people (justifiably) call out, ‘toxic positivity’ at the relentless ‘just think positive’ messages.  In fact coaching at its best is nothing of the sort.  Tony Robbins has a great approach to this.  I paraphrase:

Just relying on positive thinking alone is like going into your garden and chanting ‘there are no weeds, there are no weeds’, when your garden’s clearly full of weeds.  You need to get in there and pull them out!

We need to accept that life is frequently challenging and bad stuff happens.  Rather than passively accepting that, drowning in self-misery, or railing against the universe, we need to roll up our sleeves and deal with it.  We need to take action that will serve us well.

My clients know I’m always going to come around to some version of this question…

‘So what are you going to do about it?’

That’s it – you want something to change – go change it!  And if it’s not in your control to change it?  Then work out what you’ll do to deal with that.

Here are a few coaching questions to get you started:

  • What’s my main challenge here?
  • What small, practical action I can take right now that will serve me well?
  • Is trying to fix this, worth the energy and time?
  • Is there anything I need to accept isn’t in my control?  And what will I do to focus my energies elsewhere?

Remember, we’re all human and it’s important to acknowledge our feelings.  If something bad happens, it’s perfectly natural and healthy to feel down, upset or angry.  The problem is that simply dwelling on these feelings and responses will not serve us well, or help our situation.  It’s therefore in your gift and best interests to start to coach yourself to a better way forward that will.

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Further reading:

Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up – By Abigail Shrier.  Publisher: Sentinel

The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness – By Jonathon Haidt.  Publisher: ‎Allen Lane

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking – By Oliver Burkeman.  Publisher: Vintage

Happy: Why More or Less Everything Is Absolutely Fine – By Derren Brown.  Publisher: Corgi

Karen Amos is an executive coach and Director and Founder of BrightBird Coaching & Training. She supports business owners, managers and education leaders to get the best out of themselves and their teams. She brings a down-to-earth approach to improving working lives through better leadership, communication and working relationships. 

Tel: 07714 855757 or email: karen@bright-bird.co.uk