Why there are no rules for happiness

The beach is the place I feel happy. I believe that feeling comes from childhood holidays when we used to all compete as to who could see the sea first as we arrived at our destination. This was a game I repeated as a parent and so the idea of the beach and the sea is strongly connected for me to feeling good.

Sometimes when people come along to counselling and I ask what they would like to gain from the sessions they say that they just want to be happy. The first thing I ask is ‘What does that mean for you?’, I wonder what being happy would look like in their lives and how would they know they were happy. Is happiness being ecstatic all the time? Is it being content? Or even does it mean just not being unhappy?

Often you don’t think about what you mean when you have an idea of how you want to feel, you are not specific. Without knowing what it means to you how will you know you have arrived? Just like the arrival around the bay when first you see the sea, you know that you are there as you can see it, that is the goal.

I was reflecting on the fact that my feelings of happiness when I am near the sea also take me back to a time when, as a child, I had no responsibility and felt carefree. When was the last time you felt happy? What was the quality of that happiness?

As a human being you may be on a search for happiness and might feel you deserve it or perhaps not, depending on the experiences you have had in life. You are bombarded with information promising to tell you ‘The Key to Happiness’ or ‘If you do these ten things you will be Happy’ which I think is another way of ensuring you feel a failure when you are not feeling it!! Feelings are not the same for everyone and so there isn’t a secret way of achieving anything, it depends what floats your boat!

If you are wondering about what makes you happy I think it is worth considering how you feel about the fact that you are not. How do you know you are not happy? If you have a feeling about another feeling it might take a bit of unpicking. There is a type of therapy called ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ (ACT) which uses acceptance and mindfulness together with commitment and behaviour change. 

The aim of ACT is to help you accept your thoughts, feelings, memories and physical sensations rather than fear or avoid them. You might want to work with a Therapist or just the idea of thinking about accepting your thoughts and feelings about your thoughts and feelings may be enough for you.

Have a think about your values, can you really be happy if you are living outside of those? Maybe one of the things that matters to you is being just and fair but you are in a job where you have to give staff low grades on their annual reports to meet corporate targets… do you think you will be happy? You may be in a position where you have become accustomed to the income but the gap between who you are and who you are having to be may be so great it affects your mental health.

Make a list of all the areas of your life. Start with work, relationships, health, leisure and then make a list of your values in each area: What REALLY matters to you?  What do you want to do with your annual 31,536,000 seconds? What sort of person do you want to be?
Have a look at those lists and ask yourself: Are you living fully by those values? Are you acting inconsistently with those values? What would you like to change? What can you change and what are you going to choose to decide to work on accepting?

According to Bronnie Ware an Australian nurse who spent many years working in palliative care the Top five regrets of the dying are:

1. I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.  You may give over control of your life to others, based on what you believe they are thinking, living a life that you think you ‘should’. When in reality you have no idea what others are actually thinking (probably worrying about what others think of them) Why does it matter to you so much? I am not suggesting that you do not consider other people just to reflect if those ‘people’ that you are giving your power to really matter to you and if they do ask them what they think. It could be that you have guessed wrong.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. Think about where your ideas about work come from. Maybe you are in a relationship and the amount of hours one of you works is causing conflict. Get curious. It could be that one of you felt that you have to ‘provide’ and that to fulfil that you have to work long hours to pay for things you think the other one wants. It could be that one of you would be happy living in a tent as long as you have time together.

3. I wish I had the courage to express my feelings. Are you someone that pushes your feelings down or hides them from others? Why? Maybe it is to avoid conflict, because you think it is ‘weak’ to express feelings or you don’t actually know how you feel. Bottled up feelings are damaging and finding a way to express them can help prevent physical and mental illness. For example there is research that suggests that for some people IBS is made worse by unexpressed anger.


4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. One of the five actions for psychological health is to connect (the other four in case you are wondering are: be active, take notice, give, keep learning). Have you let your friendships go or not found time to maintain them? They are good for you, Call one of them now!

5. I wish I had let myself be happier. You can stay where you are as it is familiar although it may not be helpful or you can face that fear and make a change. You can choose to be happier, you can make conscious choices to find what joy you can even if you are living in painful circumstances. Try a gratitude journal, each day write three things you are grateful for. Trials suggest that people who do this reported feeling happier, less stressed and in better health than before they started the practice. Although there are big things some of you may be grateful for such as a roof over your head or family, try to find other things for the journal. The idea is that eventually during your day you will start to look around, engage with your environment and observe things that you notice that you are grateful for…on the days this is difficult look for small things such as the smell of your coffee or the sight of a flower, maybe think about your senses and what lifts you.

All of this takes time to think about or put into action but two limited resources in life are time and money… choose wisely! 

Contact me, Jane Hancock, on jane@eastdevoncounsellingservice.co.uk to either make an appointment or to find out if I can help.

July 2020

Published by janehancock

I am a Counsellor with nearly twenty years experience working with Individuals and Couples. I work both from home and walking by the sea. I have also spent over ten years teaching other Therapists and am a Senior Accredited Member of The British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy.

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