Part One: Our Upbringing
Happiness is the emotion we like best.
We enjoy feeling happy. It feels good. And as result, we want more of it.
There are books and articles written on happiness. Movies and TV shows are created to make us happy.
We travel, choose careers, seek companionship, and even tolerate hard challenges in hopes that persevering will lead to happiness.
And yet for some people, long-term happiness never seems to find them.
Everyone knows it’s impossible to control what life brings us to deal with. Loved ones die, we experience conflict and trauma, relationships end, people get fired, disasters happen… and happiness surely isn’t the appropriate response in the immediate aftermath.
But in the face of difficulty, is it possible to remain positive, present and hopeful?
There are three essential ingredients that influence our ability to feel happy. If any of these are off kilter, long term happiness will be difficult to experience. These ingredients include: our upbringing, our biology, and our ability to reflect and process thoughts, emotions and experiences.
The final part in this series will be on technology and spirituality and how they can help or hinder our efforts to be happy.
But it all begins with……
“There are strong indications that adult mental health problems are developmental in nature; three quarters can be traced back to mental health difficulties in childhood, and 50% arise before the age 14 years” (Kim-Cohen et al.,2003 Archives in General Psychiatry)
With the exception of extreme circumstances like war, poverty or mental illness, more than anything else, the family we’re born into gives shape to the people we become.
If our mother or primary caregiver was good enough and if there was sufficient emotional and psychological support within the family, chances are we turned out okay.
At a young age, and with the right support, we learn to face challenges when they happen, and if we can’t there are people nearby who can help. As a result, we grow up feeling comfortable seeking help from others, and it feels good when we get it.
Asking for help also sends a message to ourselves that says I am worthy of being helped. It builds trust and self-esteem.
Having our emotional and psychological needs met in childhood makes us feel secure. We need to feel secure to feel happy.
What happens if childhood wasn’t ideal?
If our mother or primary caregiver was negligent, depressed, addicted or constantly distracted, their ability to meet our needs was severely impacted.
As children, and all through life, we need people to care for us.
If the people in charge of our care were unable to meet our basic needs, we suffered. And as children, we didn’t have the skills or ability to alleviate the suffering.
Instead of feeling nourished, soothed, secure and fulfilled, not having proper care can make us feel anxious, alone, helpless, frightened and unloved. We become needy. We seek attention. A feeling of emptiness grows in us and we desperately try to fill it.
If our mother or primary caregiver was physically or emotionally abusive, overbearing, or didn’t provide the secure space we needed to grow, their behaviour made it difficult to develop a strong connection to our inner voice; the one responsible for making good decisions and thinking positively.
For example: you try a new activity, and when something happens unexpectedly, instead of being patient and gentle with yourself, you immediately label yourself an idiot, stupid, or worse. Your inner voice doesn’t soothe you as it should, possibly because it never learned how to. Soothing is a quality that initially comes from a parent. Soothing ourselves and others is a skill we learn as we grow.
Abuse or trauma endured in childhood, if not treated properly or left untreated, has consequences that get carried into later stages in life; making genuine happiness or fulfilment difficult to experience.
A good upbringing increases our chances of developing strong and healthy attachments to others and to ourselves. We need strong attachments to feel happy.
If we had a difficult childhood, the parts of ourselves that were negatively impacted need to be attended to so that we can grow and gain a sense of balance.
Becoming a teenager brings on a whole new world of thoughts, feelings, desires, dreams and ambitions.
We start relating to people differently. We experiment. Our bodies change. We feel awkward at times, and learning to communicate from this new “mature” way of being requires practice. For many people, this is the time we figure out what we want from life and who we are as individuals. The need for our own private space increases, and because of our biology, (covered in part two of this series) we experience mood changes.
Meeting the challenges that arise in our teens requires a more mature skill set than the one we developed in childhood.
If we have unresolved conflicts from the past, finding solutions to the new and more complex challenges we’re presented with in our teens becomes even more difficult, because the mental/emotional foundation that was supposed to be formed in childhood didn’t have the chance to solidify.
We made choices because we needed to, but often did so without having a sense of what the outcomes might look like.
For some people, instead of coming into clarity, being a teenager brought on additional confusion, which remained with them as they moved into adulthood.
If we have wounds from the past that weren’t addressed in childhood, or as a teenager, we carry the unresolved pain into adulthood.
To be happy, we need to feel clear, solid and secure within ourselves so that we can make choices that help us feel confident.
Confidence is the glue happiness needs to stick to you!
Turning it Around
Having a difficult childhood doesn’t mean long term happiness, confidence, or fulfilment isn’t possible.
Here are some solutions you can implement as an adult that will ensure your tomorrows don’t feel like yesterday did.
- Therapy. A skilled therapist can help you process your wounds (past/present) and experience growth in ways you couldn’t as a child. There’s a reason why so many people change with good therapy.
- Read Self-Help books. Find books that speak to the circumstances you’ve been exposed to. Fill your mind with helpful ideas so that you can create a list of internal resources, and use the ideas on your list to create change.
- Join social/support groups. No matter what your challenges were or are there are groups available to help you. Seeing other people who live with the same challenges as yours can help you feel less alone. As a child, teen or adult, your problems may have created an unhealthy need for isolation. Attending groups can help you experience happiness and provide the space to connect with others in ways that are meaningful.
- Keep your body fit. No matter what you’ve been through or are going through, exercise helps you feel better. It also helps to create a distraction, which allows the mind to process events and ideas differently.
- Don’t go it alone. People who have been wounded have a hard time trusting others. It may feel counterintuitive when you initially reach out for support, but the fact is, you need good people in your life for you to live well. Start slow. Try to build one meaningful relationship at a time. If you need help, go to places where help is offered. You’ll feel better for doing it, and you’ll learn to see yourself more positively as a result. You need to feel positive about yourself to feel happy.
The ability to be present, happy, positive and fulfilled is heavily influenced by what you experienced in the past.
If you were wounded growing up, those wounds need to be addressed so that you can live better.
As an adult, you have the ability to become the person you want to be, have a better life, and experience relationships that help you thrive, and not just survive.
What happened in the past is important to understand. What you do in the present matters even more.
“The largest of doors open when the past no longer dominates your mind”.
–Simply Spirit: A Personal Guide to Spiritual Clarity One Insight at a Time p.36
Joseph Eliezer is a Clinical Counsellor and Psychotherapist who helps people transform emotional, mental, and spiritual unease into confidence, clarity, prosperity, and vitality. He writes inspirational/motivational books including Simply Spirit. Follow him on Twitter.
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