Friday, 01 April 2011 17:32

The Observer
Life - colour supplement

December 10, 2000


Am I happy? Why can't I be happy? Shouldn't I be happier than I am? These are the questions which nowadays plague us. In past centuries people worried about dying or whether they would go to heaven, but now being happy is all that most people want. Until the therapists came along and told us to talk about our feelings people rarely talked about being happy or unhappy. In most of the years I have been alive - I was born in 1930 - most people were unhappy and many depressed, but they kept their feelings to themselves. Nowadays we talk about happiness, and our lack of it, all the time.

To me this is a particular feature of the baby boomers who are now reaching their fifties and those younger than them. Every generation reaches adulthood holding three ideas -

  • They are the first generation to discover sex.
  • They are more intelligent and more modern than previous generations.
  • All previous generations had a much easier life than they do.

These ideas are delusions. Sex has never been lost, so no one has to discover it. Despite universal education people are not getting any brighter and each generation in its own time is modern. All generations suffer. Generations just differ in the kind of suffering they have to endure.

We like to think that suffering ennobles us and gives us distinction, and so we like to think that previous generations had happier lives than we do. When Oliver James said in his Britain on the Couch that in the 1950s people were happier than they are today he was talking sentimental nonsense. The fifties were very tough and for many of us just plain horrible. I know because I was there. I would much rather be in my twenties now than, as I was, in my twenties in the fifties.

In those years women's magazines were devoted to instructing women how to make their husbands happy. There was no advice about how a woman could make herself happy except by being an devoted wife and mother. Now magazines overflow with advice about how we can spend every moment of our lives achieving happiness. Unhappiness has become unacceptable. We can feel so overwhelmed by the endless bad news the media bring us that we turn away from any mention of misery. People have always striven to lead decent lives and to bear their own suffering well, but in past centuries they looked for their rewards for their decency and suffering in heaven. In our irreligious times many people expect their reward for their decency and suffering to be happiness here and now. Moreover, they believe that if they are happy they will be seen as successful. Thus the word 'sad', which refers to the appropriate emotion to follow loss or disappointment, is used derogatively. 'He's a sad guy. He ought to get a life' is a major condemnation. Depression, once a state of mind of which to be ashamed, is less stigmatised, but it is discussed endlessly and described as a vast epidemic sweeping the planet, while the words 'depressed' and 'depression' are applied to any dysphoric feeling such as unhappiness, disappointment, lack of enthusiasm, even irritability.

Over the years that happiness and unhappiness emerged from the shadows and became the major topics of discussion and anxiety I had to deal with happiness and unhappiness in my personal life and in my professional life as a clinical psychologist. I became an expert in my own personal happiness, and, while I cannot tell in concrete detail how you can become happy, I can certainly tell you how to stop yourself from being happy. If you can practise not stopping yourself from being happy there is a good chance that you will be happy.

I spent the first forty years of my life being unhappy. There were bursts of happiness, usually associated with my son or with places I visited, but there was a leaden quality to my life, as if it were a permanent rainy day. I became happy very slowly and did not realise that this was happening until one summer day in 1975 when I was walking across an ordinary stretch of grass I looked down and saw little white daisies rising up from the grass as if they were floating and dancing. I had been so busy establishing and then heading a new department of clinical psychology in Lincolnshire I had not noticed that I was changing. The 1970s were what I now call the golden age of clinical psychology in the UK. Then we were not yet ground down by managers who cared about money but not about people, and when there was money available for us to study the new therapeutic techniques which were being developed and which changed us as much as they changed our clients.

My unhappiness must have started not long after I was born to a depressed mother. From recent detailed research on the interaction between depressed mothers and their newborn babies we know that the baby is keenly aware that the mother does not respond to the baby in the way that the baby wants and needs. The baby tries to get the mother's attention but either she does not respond or she responds briefly but cannot maintain looking at and talking to the baby who finally looks away from the mother and becomes distressed. After repeated failures to attract the mother's attention the baby gives up trying.

This was the pattern not just of my babyhood but my childhood. I loved my mother and wanted to gain her loving attention but I could never please her. In no uncertain terms she let me know that I was fat, ugly and lazy and that I irritated her with my cough. The fact that I had a lung disease, now diagnosed as bronchiectasis, which required me to cough in order to breathe and which caused periods of intense physical weakness passed her by. Unfortunately, there are many people like my mother who are so wrapped up in themselves that they are quite unable to give their children the unconditional love which all children need in order to keep that sense of being valuable and acceptable with which they are born. Like all small children deprived of unconditional love, I could explain my situation in only one way - there was something about me which was wrong, bad, unacceptable. The fault was in my essence and could not be eradicated.

My friend Jack as a child had decided, as many children do, that the disappointments, losses and betrayals he had suffered at the hands of adults were his own fault because he was not good enough. As an adult he presented himself as cool and self-confident, but inside was the worm of self-doubt. However, he made life much harder for himself because he habitually thought in particular ways. He could never admit that he was wrong in anything because doing that made him feel weak and vulnerable, yet at the same time he criticised himself harshly and endlessly. He was sure that he did not deserve to be successful and therefore happy. Like many people Jack was a confirmed pessimist, believing that it is better to expect little and avoid the pain of disappointment. Moreover, he believed that worrying about something prevented it happening. He would complain to me that, with his success in his chosen field, he ought to be happy, but, as I would point out to him, thinking as he did, how could he be happy?

The turning point in my life came when the intellectual knowledge I had as a psychologist, that I actually could eradicate the worm of self-doubt and instead value and accept myself, became knowledge of the heart and not just the head. A frequent theme in my books concerns why people refuse to let such knowledge into their hearts. If you have built you whole life on doubting your self-worth, then changing to valuing and accepting yourself means that everything in your life will change - how you think, how you get on with people, how you make every decision. Change creates uncertainty, and uncertainty creates fear. Frightened of change, many people choose to stay with the devil they know, and so they remain unhappy.

If you do decide to change you have to set out on a journey which only you can make. There are no maps. Gurus like me can only tell you about their journey, and perhaps you might be helped by that. We can always learn from other people's stories. As a psychologist I had the great privilege of listening to many different stories, and, as I did, I learned a great deal about my clients but I learned even more about myself. The question which fascinated me was not why my client had become depressed, or obsessional, or psychotic - as their story unfolded that was easy to see - but why I had not fallen into any of those dread states.

Many of my clients had had childhood far worse than mine but equally many had had childhoods little different from mine. My mother was by no means unique. In my first job in England as I listened to my clients I became aware that they had life-long ideas which were profoundly different from mine. I wanted to research this. Fortunately for me, a major change in the way research in psychology was done was underway in the 1960s. Instead of having to study large groups of people it was now becoming scientifically respectable to study individuals, which was what I wanted to do. One of my colleagues, Don Bannister, had just brought back from the USA a new psychological theory and research method - George Kelly's Personal Construct Theory and repertory grids - which I could use. For ten years I did academic research and wrote academic papers, but burying my results in academic journals helped no one. I began to write books which everyone could read.

George Kelly had not discovered something new but had simply re-packaged what the ancient Greek philosopher Epictatus had said, 'It is not things in themselves which trouble us but our opinion of things.' It is not what happens to you which leads you to be happy or unhappy but how you interpret what happens to you. It was my interpretations of what had happened to me which had led to me being a psychologist and not to being a patient in a psychiatric clinic. As a small child I realised that, if I were to survive, I had to discover why my mother behaved as she did. I did not hear the word 'psychologist' until I was fifteen, but I had been one all those years.

I certainly had not heard of Epictatus but I did know what Epictatus knew. I could easily see that whatever happened my mother would interpret it pessimistically, my father would interpret it optimistically, while I had my own interpretation and my sister had hers. How we interpreted this event determined what each of us next did. I was very fortunate in that I was not being taught by my parents that there was only one right way to interpret everything. If we grow up believing that the world is exactly as we see it and that we are fixed as the person we are we soon get into difficulties because events keep disconfirming our expectations. If you want to be very unhappy spend your life insisting that you are right and everyone else is wrong.

Many of us are forced by circumstances to live and work in ways which bring us little joy. We need to protect ourselves against a sense of unending misery by putting into every day some little activity which we enjoy. If we can concentrate on carrying out that activity and not think about matters outside what we are doing we create the circumstances where happiness can arise. As a child I would go for a swim, and I knew that if I concentrated on the shape of the next wave and how I would catch if and if I forgot about the miseries of home and school while I was swimming I would feel happy. Later, as a psychologist I came to see that happiness is an emotion like all other emotions. We cannot will an emotion into being. You can be angry only when you are angry. You can be happy only when you are happy.

Of course, you can lie to yourself about what you are feeling. You can tell yourself that you are not angry when you are, or that you are happy when you are not, but unfortunately lying to yourself always leads to disaster. The adrenaline of unrecognised anger leads to a physical shakiness which can feel like fear, and long-term repressed anger can play a significant part in physical illnesses such as severe headaches and digestive disorders. Telling yourself you are happy when you are not leaves you feeling empty inside and feeling that you are a fraud.

Whenever we get angry or get frightened or hate someone or feel shame or guilt it is extremely important to ask ourselves whether the strength of the emotion we feel is an appropriate response to what has happened. Getting wildly angry over something you would ordinarily find mildly irritating shows that there is something amiss in your life. Happiness comes in different strengths from mild contentment to ecstatic joy. Instead of enjoying whatever strength of happiness they feel some people destroy this feeling with the worry that they ought to be happier. They forget that we cannot physically sustain any strong emotion for any length of time, and that a lasting sense of mild contentment makes life so much easier.

Similarly many people are confused about what degree of unhappiness they ought to feel and for how long they should be unhappy. Unhappiness, like happiness, is an emotion, and it arises from how we interpret an event. Often people will seek to shame us for being insufficiently distressed, as my cat-loving friend often seek to do to me when a moggy dies. At the same time people will criticise us for not getting over some disaster quickly enough. Fearing unhappiness, many people fail to recognise that there are losses which we can never get completely over, even though the pain might lessen with time. There are losses for which there can be no replacement or recompense. We can replace a television set or even a flooded house, but we cannot replace someone we love who had died.

I have heard a professor of psychiatry declare that the appropriate length of time to mourn one's parents is two years. Any longer mourning is the symptom of depression known as 'irrational grief'. So much nonsense is talked about depression that it is no wonder that people get confused about what is unhappiness and what is depression. Yet the two states are very distinct. In our society it is easy to become depressed because our culture teaches us that to be good we have to accept responsibility for whatever goes wrong. Someone bumps into in the street and you say, 'Sorry.' Through the incompetence of the managers your firm goes bust, and you, a worker, feel that you are to blame. If you want to turn your unhappiness into depression all that you have to do is to blame yourself for the disaster that has befallen you. You will know when you are depressed because you will feel that you are utterly alone, locked in some kind of prison. When you are unhappy, no matter how great your suffering, other people can comfort you and you can comfort yourself, but when you are depressed you feel nothing of the comfort other people give you and you treat yourself as your own worst enemy.

Depression, unhappiness and happiness can be understood and dealt with by understanding how we each interpret ourselves and our world. People can be much happier now than they were when I was young because we can know so much more now about ourselves and because we can be prepared to discuss these matter amongst ourselves, sharing and changing our ideas. I was lucky enough to be able to do this, and slowly I found that the accompanying feeling to my life was changing from unhappiness to happiness. I wish I could do this for every unhappy person, but it is something we each have to do for ourselves. If we want to, we can.

Dorothy Rowe

Dorothy Rowe's latest book Friends and Enemies is published by HarperCollins.