Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Galen Pearl

Shadow Beliefs about Happiness

Years ago when I was researching and writing about happiness, one question kept coming up. If we all say we want to be happy, why aren’t we?

Before we go further, let’s expand our concept of happiness to include joy, well being, wonder, awe, contentment, inner peace, enjoyment, just basic okayness, and any other related terms. Regardless of our favored vocabulary, the question remains: Why aren’t we happy? Why do we need so many experts, counselors, coaches, steps, practices, workshops, and countless other resources to help us experience what seems like such a natural thing?

Of course, we can identify many things that get in the way, such as holding happiness hostage to particular circumstances or events, but in my experience, you can meet all of your imagined prerequisites for happiness and still not be happy. Why? In my years of exploring this topic, I came to understand that one thing stands in the way of all efforts. Underneath all our excuses and frustrations about our repeated failures to achieve what we imagine happiness to be, there is a hidden belief that most of us are unaware of: if we’re really honest, a lot of us don’t think it’s okay to be happy. Oh, it’s okay to pursue happiness, but for goodness sakes, don’t catch it!

I call these hidden beliefs shadow beliefs. Here are some shadow beliefs I’ve encountered in myself and others:

Being happy is selfish.
Being happy is delusional.
We shouldn’t be happy when those around us are not.
We shouldn’t be happy when there are so many terrible things happening in the world.
If I let my vigilant guard down to be happy, something bad will happen.
I have too much responsibility to be happy.
I don’t have time to be happy.
Being happy is self-indulgent.
Being happy is not intelligent.
Bad things in my past keep me from being happy.
Happiness doesn’t last.
Happiness is for suckers.
Being happy is committing hubris.
I don’t deserve to be happy.
Happiness is for other people.
Unhappiness is just my nature.
People will criticize me or ridicule me if I’m happy.
Being happy is uncaring.
Happiness is not compatible with compassion.
It is my duty to sacrifice my happiness.
Happiness is frivolous.
I don’t feel like a good person if I allow myself to be happy.
My happiness would be hurtful to someone.
Trying to be happy is too much pressure.
And more….

If we hold any one of these beliefs, we will consciously or unconsciously sabotage any effort or hope of happiness in our lives. In my book 10 Steps to Finding Your Happy Place (and Staying There), the first step is giving yourself permission to be happy. This is surprisingly difficult for many people to do. And this is where any inquiry into happiness, well being, etc., must start, with a gentle and honest exploration of whether we really believe that it is okay to be happy. Or to put it another way, is it okay to be okay? We’ve already devoted a lot of time and energy to accepting that it’s okay to not be okay, but can we really embrace the flip side of that?

Can we examine our own beliefs and values about happiness with compassion, without heaping further judgment on ourselves? There is no right or wrong here. There is just gentle inquiry. And if we find some of these hidden beliefs lurking in the shadows, can we bring them into the light, again without judgment, and just get to know them better? What is their origin? Did they come from family, culture, experience? Are they really true? What happens if we release those beliefs? Do we feel some anxiety about that idea?

No matter what, can we hold ourselves in compassion, accepting who we are, loving who we are, and trusting that if we are even a little bit willing to open the door, happiness might just peek in and say hello?

Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you. ~Hafez

6 thoughts on “Shadow Beliefs about Happiness”

  1. Kathy @ SMART Living

    Hi Galen. What a good question. You are right. There are so-o-o many people who seem to struggle with accepting the idea that they deserve to be happy. Fortunately for me–I think I was born able to be happy (just about) all the time. Sure sometimes I experience sadness. Other times I feel tense or cranky. But the vast majority of the time I wake up and stay happy throughout the day. But like you wrote, I know a LOT of other people seem to push it away or spend far more time worrying than I do. They also seem to feel guilty whenever they “get happy” or worry about having to pay the price for happiness.

    But Thom and I went to a workshop years ago from a man named Barry Neil Koffman who wrote a book called “Happiness Is a Choice.” For a number of reasons that simple statement has stayed with me through the good, the bad and even the ugly. And as I also remind myself, I can’t always affect the circumstances but I can ALWAYS choose my state of mind about it. Yes, happiness is right where we are, but we still have to take the time to see it. And choose.

    Thank for for the reminder of this today! You seem to have a knack for doing that at really good times! ~Kathy

    1. That is a great reminder that happiness is a choice. As you say, Kathy, we can always choose our attitude towards ourselves, others, and what is happening. I know there are people like you and Bob (in the next comment) who have always had a “happy baseline.” I had to learn to be happy, and a major part of that was what ended up being Step 1 in the 10 Steps — identifying and releasing my shadow beliefs (in my case the need to be ever vigilant to prevent bad things from happening) and giving myself permission to be happy. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Your “10 Steps” book remains firmly in place in a living room bookcase. I remember absolutely loving the points it made so forcefully about happiness and choices.

    In fact, this post has prompted me to pull it from the shelf and start to reread it. I guess I am lucky: happiness has never been a problem for me, though the stuff that comes with aging has tested that state a few times!

    1. I’ll be curious to know if the book seems different to you after all these years. However, I suspect it will be the same in the sense of affirming for you what you’ve always known about being happy. Like I said to Kathy in the comment above, I had to learn what came naturally to the two of you. Even when occasionally tested by aging! Thanks for commenting, Bob.

  3. Yes, the the journey towards happiness can be quite intricate, often influenced by our own subconscious beliefs. It might be helpful to remember that happiness isn’t a destination, but an ongoing process that calls for self-awareness and self-compassion.

    It could also be beneficial to question the societal narrative that links happiness with success or material wealth. Happiness is a deeply personal and subjective experience that may not be defined by external standards. It’s also worth considering that it’s okay to experience a range of emotions, including sadness or anger. These emotions don’t negate happiness but are part of the human experience.

    Finally, the practice of gratitude might be a powerful tool in our journey towards happiness. By appreciating what we have, we might shift our focus from what’s missing in our lives to what’s already present, fostering a sense of contentment and well-being.

    In conclusion, it might be worth considering that giving ourselves permission to be happy, challenging our shadow beliefs, embracing our emotions, and practicing gratitude could potentially pave the way for a more fulfilling and joyful life.

    1. Thanks, Al, for your insightful response. And yes, gratitude (also one of the 10 Steps) is an easy and profound practice for bringing happiness into your life. I always appreciate your comments. Please give my regards to your friend D.

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