It's not my job to make people happy

"Which poet was it who said, 'I am tired of the fine art of unhappiness'? Well, I feel like that, and I'm fed up with it. All I want, really, is to be happy. Not happy in fits and starts, but happy as a given constant."

"Which poet was it who said, 'I am tired of the fine art of unhappiness'? Well, I feel like that, and I'm fed up with it. All I want, really, is to be happy. Not happy in fits and starts, but happy as a given constant."

The man with me sounds as disgruntled as his slumped body looks. He's just turned 40 and, deciding that he didn't want to spend his fifth decade feeling that life is a litany of disappointments, thought he'd try psychotherapy. Good things happen to him, he says, but they don't last, and the little pockets of feeling good don't seem to hold. Could I please help him to understand why he hasn't got a handle on how to be happy?

It's a funny thing, happiness. People refer to it as something they want, something missing, as if it could be secured if they only knew where to find it. Lack of it is blamed on past relationships and hope for it placed on future lovers. Desire for it becomes a restless quest. Yet, over and again in therapy, it is clear that a hungry pursuit for the illusive state of happiness only ends in frustration and yet more unhappiness.

When I ask this man to tell me about the disappointments he mentions, he reels off a list: a love affair that lost its zest; a work project scuppered by a colleague; a holiday spoilt by the weather; a plan halted by ill health. All were potential routes to happiness. And it is this endless feeling of things being blighted that makes him feel let down by life and unhappy.

Something petulant in his tone makes me think of a sulky child. When I share this thought, he laughs, and tells me that he had been such a child. He was, he says, spoilt rotten by very loving parents. They had suffered much hardship in their own lives, and when hard work and good luck made them well off, they decided that he, their only son, would have all they had lacked, and more.

He had wanted for nothing. Yet this came with a cost. For having everything on a plate before he had even developed an appetite had robbed him of the chance to reach and struggle for something meaningful and of his very own. There had never been an empty space he had enjoyed working hard to fill. Little wonder he was unable to remain attached to anything or anyone after frustration set in. Working through difficulty simply hadn't ever been asked of him.

His desire for happiness was, I felt, in the same bracket. Like much of his earlier experience, he expected it to arrive as some sort of birthright. And now here he was in his 40th year, feeling Hard Done By and hoping that therapy could help him feel less disconsolate.

While hopefully a by-product of developing emotional maturity, happiness was not, I told him, a specific therapeutic aim. But therapy could offer the challenge to stay with, and so gradually understand, the meaning of his unhappiness, rather than bolting when the going got rough. The notion that we can uncover a meaning within our suffering underpins the whole therapeutic venture. By working towards understanding the reasons for his disappointments, this man had the chance to begin re-shaping his own life journey. This was unlikely to give him happiness as a "given constant", but could enable him to develop something far more important. As Jung said: "The principal aim of psychotherapy is not to transport the patient to an impossible state of happiness, but to help him acquire steadfastness and philosophic patience in the face of suffering. Life demands for its completion and fulfilment a balance between joy and sorrow."

The writer is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. None of the above clinical material refers to specific individual cases

Elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

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