The Upside of Looking Inside
I believe tremendous benefits can be realized from in-depth therapy. Of course I’m going to say that, I’m a therapist, right? Stick with me here. There are just as many different types of therapy out there as there are different people looking for therapy. Nothing is truly one size fits all, and the best therapy for you is the type that feels right to you. However, I can say that choosing to really look inside yourself and being willing to find the roots of old thoughts and patterns can lead to increased happiness in life.
Often a person first comes to therapy because something has happened and life has become difficult. Whether it’s a recent divorce, work issues, feelings of depression or anxiety, and so on, we enter therapy because we want to feel better. We want to feel better. Happy, even. Aren’t we all entitled to some happiness? But many people end therapy after the initial crisis feels like it has passed, assuming that because the crisis is in the rearview mirror, happiness must be the automatic next destination. When you hit that point, I encourage you to continue in therapy because when the crisis is over, the real work can begin. The work where you start to look inside and begin to develop insight into how you got into that crisis in the first place.
Think of it like this: When you take your car in for its regular maintenance and inspection, does the mechanic just walk around the outside of the car, kick the tires a little, and pronounce you good to go for the next 20,000 miles or so? No. (At least I hope not.) The mechanic looks under the hood, checks the fluids and filters, inspects the brake pads and tires for wear. In short, you count on the mechanic to do a thorough inspection of all the working parts of your vehicle to ensure your safety as you drive for the next year. I encourage you to think of therapy in the same way. It’s far more effective to do a thorough inspection of what is inside your own mind, instead of stopping when everything starts to look okay on the surface, to ensure you are in the best position to lead a more fulfilling life.
And there’s this funny thing about happiness. You can’t really will yourself to be happy if you don’t feel it in the first place. Researchers with the National Institutes of Health published a 2011 study they actually titled Can seeking happiness make people happy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness (Mauss, Tamir, Anderson, & Savino, 2011). This study found that highly valuing happiness can lead to decreased feelings of well-being. The researchers suggest that decreasing the importance placed on personal happiness increases a person’s positive experience (Mauss et al., 2011). In other words, you’ll feel happier when you stop trying so hard to be happy. Similarly, in Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David’s new book Emotional Agility, she writes that “showing up” for your emotions is far better medicine than pushing aside how you’re really feeling because you think you’re actively supposed to ‘be happy.’
Paralleling much of the research on the effects of mindfulness from the work of Jon Kabat-Zin to Daniel Siegel and many others, current happiness research seems to say that the key to finding happiness in life is to learn to embrace all of our emotions, both positive and negative, without getting caught up in any one feeling in particular. So easy to say, but oh-so-difficult to actually do! How does a person learn to not only stop fighting that internal battle but also find a way to step outside of the struggle? It might sound counterintuitive, but learning to embrace who you are – the good, the bad, the amazing, and the yuck – creates a sense of freedom that allows you to move through life with greater ease.
Depth work in therapy, going beyond that initial crisis that first brought you into counseling, helps to increase insight and self-awareness that lead to greater happiness in life. A therapist trained to help you analyze your thinking and emotions can help you to better see where you keep fighting imaginary battles by helping you to better understand yourself. And with that understanding, happiness becomes a reality.
Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M., Anderson, C. L., and Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness
make people happy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion, 11(4), 807-