To understand authentic happiness, we need to know how and why we make ourselves unhappy, and self actualization is mostly an exploration of how we do this. Suffering doesn't happen 'out there' in the world, it happens 'in here' in our interpretation of the world. In other words, suffering happens in the mind, in the thoughts about what is happening in our experience rather than in the events that are actually occurring. Of course, we can all imagine some pretty horrific events, but happiness psychology is about our everyday experience. How and why 'bad things happen to good people' will be discussed elsewhere on this site.
Fear is a natural survival response of the body to danger. We imagine that fear is suffering, and yet most of us have enjoyed scary rides at the amusement park, so there isn't inherently any suffering in fear itself, and in fact it is rather enjoyable.
Likewise, we've all enjoyed sad movies, so it's not true that sorrow is the equivalent to suffering. What turns fear and sorrow into suffering is what we think about those experiences while they are happening. Again, suffering happens between the ears.
This is why various techniques have appeared to improve our happiness, based on the idea that what we think about determines our level of satisfaction. This is why positive thinking, affirmations, meditation, self hypnosis and many other techniques have gained a degree of popularity, and yet clearly if any of these techniques were able to produce an ongoing state of authentic happiness, the dilemma of human suffering, which every human on the planet seeks to resolve, would no longer be an issue.
The truth is they work a little for a while, and then they don't, which is what keeps us chasing after the next happiness guru in hopes that this one will work as advertized. So why don't they work? Well, this gets us back to self actualization and why we think those negative thoughts in the first place in spite of the obvious fact that they are unpleasant to think about. Negative thoughts are seemingly rational attempts to resolve our fear. We can see that acting wisely reduces our risk, and so if thinking before acting works in our favor, then we begin to run with it, projecting imaginary scenarios into the future, analyzing the possible outcomes, and weighing the risks against the potential benefits. Perhaps most of us would like to think we don't analyze life that much, but self actualization reveals that we do precisely that rather continuously, in sometimes very subtle ways. As such, positive thinking works right up until fear tells us to stop fooling around and start acting with wisdom.
The question then becomes, is this hyper-active vigilance of imagining potential problems and predicting outcomes actually protecting us, or just making us unhappy and more terrified? Is it necessary to imagine what could go wrong, or is the natural survival response of the body/mind that produces the fear to begin with already fully equipped to do it's job without you imagining scenarios that likely will never occur? Last but not least, is there something creative about this focus on imaginary problems, such that the focus of attention on them actually increases the likelihood of them occurring, placing you in greater danger rather than providing protection? In exploring self actualization, we'll answer these questions and much more, in future articles.
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