The overriding goal of psychotherapy, and mental health more generally, is thought to be: Feeling good. In the realm of self-esteem, the goal is thought to be: Feeling good about yourself. In the realm of emotions and depression, the goal is thought to be: Simply feeling good.
Don’t misunderstand. There’s nothing wrong with feeling good. But there is something wrong with making this the preeminent goal of human experience.
For one thing, it doesn’t always feel good to do the right thing — even when the right thing is in your own interest. Doing the right and rational thing to advance your life is sometimes hard. It often involves delay of gratification to get to what you consider a more important goal. Life is one long series of choices. When you choose rationally, you put off something you judge of lesser importance in favor of something you judge of greater importance. Maybe you postpone a social event to rearrange your garage. Maybe you give up a couple of vacations to pursue a business opportunity. You forego parties to go to medical school. It doesn’t always feel good, in the moment, to do these things. But the lack of feeling good in every moment doesn’t mean what you’re doing is wrong.
If feeling good is to be the most important goal, then presumably you should give up other things in its pursuit. But this is the whole reason people make stupid decisions, or get addicted to things. “I know it’s a problem for me to engage in that behavior as much as I do. But it makes me feel good.” If feeling good is the ultimate goal of life, then it’s hard to dispute this argument. No wonder so many people stubbornly hold on to their self-defeating or even self-destructive behavior.
Authority figures often make matters worse. When feeling good as the ultimate goal leads to self-defeat or self-destruction, people are lectured against being “selfish.” Instead of being told that they’re making the wrong thing the primary goal, they’re condemned for having a goal at all. This would be like telling a person with medical illness: “You shouldn’t have been breathing all those years. If you hadn’t been breathing, you wouldn’t be alive to get sick.” This is insanity, of course. But it’s no less insane to tell a person the psychological equivalent: “Don’t be selfish.” Not being selfish means not being self-interested — that is to stay, not living. All living organisms must be self-interested to survive and flourish. Attempting to live is not the mistake most people make. It’s the way they go about it that’s wrong.
If feeling good is not to be the primary goal, then what is? My conclusion: Serenity. By serenity I don’t mean anything supernatural. I don’t want to imply any suspension of consciousness to achieve serenity; drug abuse is available to achieve that end. By serenity I simply mean a state in which you are in full command of your mind and your life, exercising your free will in the most competent way you can at all times; and, at the very same time, completely unconcerned with things you cannot and will never control. A serene person is not passive and helpless, but a serene person is not a control-freak, either. People lacking in serenity spend a lot of time fuming or fretting over what they cannot control — usually other people. People filled with serenity cherish the freedom and responsibility required by living a full life, and they go after their values — achievable, attainable ones – at full throttle. Their refusal to spend even a moment of thought on what they cannot control enables them to achieve and enjoy in the realm they can master.
Many will feel, “Attaining a state of serenity is easier said than done.” True enough. But the path to mental health usually requires clearing your mistaken assumptions out of the way. Stop trying to feel good, and instead learn to love what life has to offer you, and what life requires of you: Use of your mind. Using your mind is the one thing that’s always in your power to achieve, expand and maintain. Look around the world. Everything of value was achieved by someone, somewhere, using their reasoning, thinking and rational minds. If they can do it, you can too. The possibilities are limitless, once you stop worrying about how you’re going to feel good in the process.