The Accidental Struggle Against Happiness

Most people, if asked "Do you resist happiness?", would respond with an emphatic "No, of course not". Indeed, they might regard it as a rhetorical question or an annoying tease. But, I believe it's a serious matter, a common phenomenon, and that we often undermine our well-being and effectiveness by indulging an unconscious, self-defeating mindset and pattern of behavior.

Let me begin by placing my point of view in a psychological context that may make this "accidental struggle" a bit less shocking and more understandable. It involves two theories that have been supported by over a decade of empirical research. They are adult attachment theory and the broaden and build theory of positive emotions.

Adult Attachment Theory

In brief, attachment theory proposes that we form our sense of self identity, our personality, and our approach to relationships based upon what we learn early in life through interactions with our attachment figures. When we experience them as available, attentive, and responsive to our expressed needs, we feel validated in the free expression of our experience (especially our feelings).

Based on this quality of relationship, we come to feel hopeful and encouraged about the potential for relationships to be supportive, collaborative, and above all, capable of surviving differences and conflict. We learn to express our true feelings and thoughts freely, rather than being guarded and overly cautious, for fear of how others will react. It promotes feelings of optimism, hope, and safety.

The Broaden and Build Theory

The broaden and build theory of positive emotions proposes that positive emotions - joy, interest, contentment, and love - affect our sense of well-being and our capacity to function effectively. We've all heard about the negative health effects of stress. It triggers excessive cortisol production by the adrenal gland. Such stress is associated with negative emotions such as fear, anger, and sadness. When it persists we can suffer physical maladies and burnout.

While negative emotions constrict the range of our momentary thought-action repertoire - think fight-or-flight reactions of the autonomic nervous system - our positive emotions broaden our thought-action repertoire. We become more creative, adaptive, confident, and effective in problem solving. A favorable ratio of positive to negative emotions promotes well-being and optimal functioning. 

Even more important, on the basis of sustaining a favorable ratio (estimated at 3:1 or greater) of positive to negative emotions, we are able to build enduring capacities to function more effectively. It's not just a "feel-good" phenomenon. In this connection, see my recent article on how our neurophysiology is shaped by our deliberate action in the context of positive, caring relationships.

Welcoming Happiness

Now back to the unconscious retreat from happiness. I believe that many of us hold back expressing and discussing parts of our experience, especially our feelings, positive or negative, for fear that doing so seem "soft" or will alienate those with whom we want to be connected. Perhaps we haven't learned how to cultivate relationships and ways of interacting with others that can tolerate the expression of troubled feelings and work through them productively. 

In absence of genuine optimism and hope about the potential of relationships to be mutually helpful, and the potential for positive emotions to make a practical difference, we can become habitually negative, cynical, and pessimistic. This mindset goes something like this: "Positive feelings can't last or make things different, so why set myself up for failure or risk being seen as foolish or naive?"

The good new is that self-limiting tendencies in attachment orientation and deficits of positivity in mindset can be changed. We can learn to cultivate more positive, functional ways of relating to others and to ourselves. We need not let feelings of pessimism block our capacity for welcoming and sustaining positive emotions and happiness, and using them for growth and creativity.

So, next time you catch yourself in a funk or stuck in a rut of negativity remind yourself that sustainable change is possible.

Contact Information:

As always, we're happy to discuss any questions you may have about how the topic in this blog might be relevant to you and others in your organization, and your ways of being helpful to them. Contact me by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at