Barely a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask, ‘how you’re feeling.’ Given all this concern, it seems like ‘feeling good’ should be the primary goal of our human experience. But in fact it’s not. Wait ‘ before you turn the page, think about it: Does it always feel good to do the right thing — even when it’s in your own interest? Of course not. Doing the right thing to advance your life is sometimes hard. It requires delayed gratification and difficult choices. In order to choose what’s best, we often put off something of lesser importance in favor of something of greater importance, and it doesn’t always feel good to do that. But not feeling good every moment of the day doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong.
People make stupid decisions and/or get addicted to things when they conclude that feeling good all the time is a worthy goal. “I know it’s a problem for me to engage in this behavior as much as I do. But it makes me feel good.” It’s hard to dispute this argument if you’re convinced that feeling good is the end-all and be-all. No wonder so many people stubbornly hold on to their self-destructive behaviors — the natural result of which can be depression.
A website called psychologyinfo.com offers a typical but misleading definition of depression: ‘Depression is a psychological condition that changes how you think and feel, and also affects your social behavior and sense of physical well-being.’ As a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, I submit that the truth is exactly the reverse. The way you think is the primary cause of your feelings, depressed or otherwise. Not understanding this point leads many people to get stuck in their depression. They assume, ‘I’m depressed because of a condition that somebody has to get rid of while I passively sit back.’ You won’t get that sort of reaction from a cognitive-behavioral therapist. What you will get is: ‘You’re feeling this way because of how you think. We have to identify and examine your negative thinking, and then work to change it. If we’re successful, you’ll start to feel better. We also have to identify your self-defeating behaviors and how they are based on negative thinking and mistaken beliefs. Changing those will lead you out of depression and into a better life.’
Authority figures can make matters worse. When the pursuit of ‘feeling good’ leads to self-destruction, people are lectured against being “selfish.” Instead of being told that they’re striving toward the wrong goal, they’re condemned for having a goal at all. This is like telling a person with a 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.” Ridiculous, of course. But it’s no different than telling a person the psychological equivalent, “Don’t be selfish.” Not being selfish means not being self-interested — in other words, not alive. All living organisms must be self-interested to survive and flourish. Living is not the mistake; it’s the way they go about it that causes psychological problems.
So, if feeling good is not our primary goal, then what is? My experience over the years brings me to one conclusion: Serenity. By serenity I don’t mean something supernatural. I simply mean achieving a state in which you are in command of your mind and your life, exercising your free will in the most competent way you can. Along with that sense of control comes a healthy lack of concern for things you cannot control. A serene person is not passive and helpless, but also isn’t a ‘control freak.’ People who lack serenity spend a lot of time fretting over things they can’t control (usually, other people). The serene individual cherishes the freedom and responsibility required for living a full life, and they go after goals that they know are attainable. Their refusal to waste time on what they can’t control frees up the mental capacity and energy to achieve the objectives that they know are worth working for.
During discussions such as this, people will often say to me, ‘But this is easier said than done.” OK, true enough. But we have to start somewhere, and the path to good mental health requires getting past your mistaken assumptions. One of the first is to stop trying to just feel good, and instead learn to love what life has to offer you. At first, it might not ‘feel good’ to use your mind and master the power to expand and maintain your psychological well-being.
Look around: 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 in the process.