“Why can’t I feel happiness and joy?!?!?!”
This question gets asked all the time. It’s a question I am personally quite familiar with. When we are in the middle of the recovery process, still in the grips of anxiety and fear, we often find that we are unable to experience feelings of happiness, joy, or gratitude, at least not the way we think we should be experiencing them. But really, this is not a matter of being unable to feel happy. This is really a perception problem, and a patience problem. We often carry a somewhat distorted and unrealistically high expectation of what “happy” is supposed to feel like and how often we should feel it. Then we want so badly to feel happy and joyful in contrast to how we feel when we suffer, that we forget that the path to happiness is an incremental path that requires patience.
When I was in my worst times, I was somewhat consumed with the idea that I could not feel happy. I would look intently at my then young daughters and try so hard to feel love and joy and happiness. I was sure that they should be triggering those feelings in me. I was under the assumption that parents automatically feel intense happiness and gratitude when looking at their children, yet I was completely unable to conjure those feelings on demand. This pressed on me, and drove me into a bit of a desperate state where I was terrified that I had somehow lost the ability to experience happiness.
When expressing this with my therapist, she really came through for me. She taught me that happiness exists on a very long and varied spectrum and that complete joy and feelings of nirvana where simply not the default form of “happy” for human beings. In a stroke of what I see as complete genius, she showed me that enjoying a warm car seat on a bitter cold day was in fact a simple and perfectly valid form of happiness, and she assured me that my “happy switch” was not permanently turned off.
If you are feeling desperate to experience joy again, or lamenting the loss of the old joyful version of you, take heart. Your happy switch is not turned off either. It’s working perfectly fine. Your anxiety state is simply clouding the issue, and your current suffering is driving you to want things NOW that will only come in time and with patience.
When we suffer, we crave the opposite of suffering. When in the grips of high anxiety, when we are obsessively focused on how we feel all the time, we wish for the return of happiness and joy because we see them as the opposite of what we are experiencing in the moment.
“If I feel so bad, then surely the opposite of that would be feeling joyful and happy and full of gratitude!”
This is a mistake. In reality, the opposite of feeling bad is simply not noticing or caring how you feel. The default state for a human being is not nirvana. The default state for a human being is “content” or “neutral”. That’s a very different target, isn’t it?
When we are in an anxious state, we may still experience small moments of contentment, or even happiness. We just can’t see them. For example:
- Enjoying the taste of an apple when you bite into it – even for just a few seconds – is a form of happiness.
- Smiling when your dog does something funny – even for just a few seconds – is a form of happiness.
- Relaxing your body into your pillow under a warm blanket and allowing that sensation even for a few seconds is a form of happiness.
- Enjoying the feeling of warmth when your car heats up on a cold morning is a form of happiness.
These might not be the expressions of happiness you are demanding, but they are valid nonetheless. Right now, with your focus firmly fixed on how you feel, this may be all you have space to experience. This is OK. As you go down the path to recovery and that inward focus begins to loosen, things will change with regard to how you experience emotions in general, including happiness. As we are less ruled by anxiety and fear, we begin to make room for more intensely happy or joyful moments to emerge. They do not become our new default, but they do begin to show themselves again.
Finding happiness and joy is a step by step process that takes time and requires patience. Allow your recovery work to create change. Be patient while that change happens. Along the way, do your best to notice and validate the small bits of happiness and contentment that you do experience as you move through your day. Allow yourself to move from inwardly focused and fearful to neutral and contented over time. That is your goal, so do not punish yourself by aiming for unbounded joy and gratitude as a measure of success.
The day will come where you will find yourself experiencing joy, happiness, or gratitude the way you’ve hoped to experience it. It will happen, then it will happen again and again in a natural, organic way as it does for all humans.
We can never guarantee extreme happiness, but oddly when we stop demanding it, it is most likely to appear in the most unexpected places.
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