ACT For the Public: Is Happiness Our Normal, Natural State?
TL;DR: The assumption of health normality suggests that normal = happy = healthy and thus, distressing internal experiences like emotions or thought we don’t want, or physical sensations that are uncomfortable, are only problems to be solved. But what is normal? If I check my own experience, normal seems to be a flowing, ever-changing river of experiences. My mentor says, “We treat emotions like math problems…but what if they are actually sunsets?”
Is happiness our normal state?
Friday morning: I run around the house. It’s the last week of school. My daughter and I are both sick, hacking through the night, popping pills in the morning. I can feel the bubbling-over urge to bark at her, “Draw pictures for your teacher! Why are you just scribbling? We need to go!”
I can also feel the weight of her sadness. Her slow reckoning with this transition away from a loved school. Her confusion as the soft nest of friendships and community seemed to crumble away. And I wanted so much to take her pain away and fix all the feelings.
The assumption of healthy normality suggests two things:
“health and happiness are the natural homeostatic states of human existence” (p5; Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson, 2012)
and thus, distressing internal experiences like emotions or thought we don’t want, or physical sensations that are uncomfortable, are only problems to be solved
It’s tempting, isn’t it, to think that our natural state is happiness? There’s a pervasive societal whisper that supports and sells this illusion. And sells the things to fix you back to happiness.
How often have you chased the illusion that our natural state is happiness and you just need to crack the code to get back to normality nirvana? One more Tim Ferriss book, one more coaching session, one more podcast. I’ve sought peace in fluffy bath towels, meditation retreats, and the newest pink lipstick. I bet you can guess how that worked out.
But then what is normal?
What is normal? Check your own experience. (I’ll wait – take three breaths and notice what thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations you are aware of right now.)
If I check my own experience and the experiences of my loved ones, normal seems to be a flowing, ever-changing river of sensations and observations:
Of emotions such as sadness and tenderness and annoyance and joy and boredom and judgement and shame and calm and tension
Of physical sensations of emptiness or no sensation, tingling, hunger, itching, relaxation, discomfort, minor pain, major pain, nothing and itching again
Of thoughts, typically focused on myself, my wants, and judgement about others
What if normal and typical is feeling a whole orchestra of internal experiences? Having lots of emotions, thoughts, quirks and pains, some that sting and some that soothe?
Pema Chodron tells the tale of snapping at her teacher, then explaining that she was overcome with stress and anxiety as so many things were changing in her life. The teacher blinked then replied flatly, “But everything is change, we are never in permanence.”
Back to Friday morning: I sat down (you will notice most of my ah-ha moments begin with shutting up and sitting down). I talked to myself, “You are tired and sad. This is totally normal. Saying goodbye is hard. Watching your daughter in pain is hard. And you care because this matters to you. You love her, you want to support her through this transition.” And I talked with her. I asked how she was feeling about it, what she would miss, and what felt nice to leave. I tried to open a space for all the emotions to be there, just as they were. Without trying to change or fix anything.
And finally a word from my mentor…
My mentor says, “We treat emotions like math problems…but what if they are actually sunsets?”
Where does the illusion of “happiness as normal” come up for you? When do you want to fix your emotions?
Sending you love and freedom from the “emotions-as-math-problems” mindset,
The “ACT For the Public” series:
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an evidence-based intervention to address common human struggles such as anxiety, overwhelm, and needless suffering. ACT (pronounced “act”, the thing you do to make your life better) aims to teach and strengthen the skills of openness, presence, and engagement.
The founders of ACT argue that these skills help us:
navigate the inevitable pain and joy of this journey
create a life that reflects our deepest values
and fill our minutes with the way we want to show up in the world.
With the goal of sharing the fruits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with you, this is one in a series of essays inspired by the foundational texts of ACT. I am intentionally focusing on the aspect of these writings which I think are relevant and digestible to people without advanced training in behaviorism or psychology.
*This writing benefited from regular discussions with Dr. Robyn Walser and the wisdom of “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change” by Hayes, Strosahl, and Wilson (2nd edition, 2012). All errors are mine alone.