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Health & Balance

Why You’re Not Happy

Six common barriers to personal happiness and fulfillment and how to overcome them.
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Happiness Barrier No. 4: Despair

Solution: Stay hopeful

Did a parent attempt to protect you as a child by saying, “Don’t get your hopes up”? There’s no evidence that hope is hurtful, says David B. Feldman, PhD, assistant professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in California. Instead, hope can greatly enhance happiness in people.

But genuine hope isn’t a yellow smiley face or the denial of death at the bedside of a loved one in hospice, says Feldman, who’s pursued research and clinical work addressing the question: “How do people maintain hope and meaning in the face of adversity?

Three components are essential for hope to thrive, Feldman says. They are having goals, as well as a plan and the motivation to achieve them. “Those who succeed don’t internalize the blame game, either internally or externally,” he says, “They ask, ‘what now?’”

In addition to reaching goals, these people perform better in sports and school, Feldman says. They have a greater tolerance for pain. They use health-promoting behaviors. They also have a lower risk for depression, anxiety, and heart disease.

Feldman advises setting personally meaningful goals and checking to see where your hope falters -- is it with the plan or the motivation? Allow yourself to daydream, he says. It’s a wonderful source of hope and, therefore, happiness.

Happiness Barrier No. 5: Suppressing sadness

Solution: Feel the real

Having a positive outlook doesn’t mean you never allow yourself to feel sadness. The parents who try to protect their children from dashed hopes -- or any kind of sadness -- may actually produce the opposite effect than is intended, says James R. Doty, MD, director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. Some suffering, he says, makes you a whole person and allows you to acclimate and move forward in your life. Doty speaks from experience. He had an alcoholic father and invalid mother. He lived on public assistance for much of his youth.

“Happiness is not the absence of sadness,” says David Spiegel, MD, medical director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at Stanford University School of Medicine. It is not a stiff upper lip or the pop psychology mantra, intoning “always stay upbeat” in the face of cancer. “Phony happiness is not good.” By suppressing sadness, you suppress other, more positive emotions, as well, he says, so people who try to suppress emotions actually become more anxious and depressed.

By finding outlets for sadness and frustration, you gain some measure of control, Spiegel says. Using others as a sounding board -- not as a toxic dumping ground -- can help convert generalized anxiety and depression into targeted feelings you can address with specific solutions.

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