Many people assume that mental health is a matter of either medicine or moral weakness. The medicine side assumes that pills can eradicate mental illness. The moral side assumes that troubling emotions stem from weakness of character. Neither side is correct.
Troubling emotions originate from faulty reasoning and mistaken assumptions. A perfect example is the “Heaven’s Reward” fallacy, one of the most destructive ideas to be foisted upon the human race. In short, it wrongly suggests that doing good will somehow lead to personal rewards. Any skilled cognitive psychotherapist will tell you that doing good does not necessarily lead to personal gain. For example, being a martyr and sacrificing for others does not automatically lead to happiness.
Unfortunately, some mental health professionals are as troubled as their clients in assuming that “good” is defined as self-sacrifice. They might say, “Don’t be a martyr,” but they then take for granted that morality consists of self-sacrifice. This insidious premise is never questioned, and it gets already unhappy people into even more trouble. It’s an error that no medication can resolve. And I see the troubling effects almost every day in my office.
The healthy approach is to assume two things: First, that the purpose of life is to be happy. Second, that one must take sensible steps to achieve and maintain some measure of happiness. Many people spend their lives trying to determine what those steps are.
If you go through life giving in to others and/or doing what you think they want you to do, there’s no reward at the end of that phony rainbow. The only “reward” is that the moment you betray yourself, you’ve taken a major chunk out of your capacity to be happy. And you have no business wondering, “Why am I so depressed?”
Some will say that concern for your own happiness is “selfish,” and therefore bad. To those, I reply, “Is it selfish to go to the doctor to treat a medical ailment?” And conversely, “Is refusing to go to the doctor yourself, but making sure other people go, a selfless and therefore moral thing to do?” The answer is obvious.
The problem is that some think they must give up happiness in order to be good. This sets morality and personal fulfillment at war with each another, i.e., the more you give up, the better you are. Beware! Many clever politicians, self-proclaimed religious “leaders” and other moochers of body, mind and spirit stand ready – with hands outstretched – to piously collect those sacrifices from you.
If aliens were to land and observe human beings, I suspect they’d make the following discovery: “These humans want to be happy. Everything they do centers on the quest for survival and the pursuit of fulfillment. Yet for some reason, they believe that self-sacrifice – the lessening of happiness – is the central purpose in life. And they idolize those who pretend to embody this ideal. What a strange bunch, these beings.”
And even stranger, there’s no reason we have to be that way. In fact, it’s a tribute to us that we have achieved so much happiness in the face of so much ethical and psychological opposition. We’ve spent most of our history under some form of political dictatorship or authoritarianism. Even the brightest light of freedom in history, the original American republic, is now suffering the threat of the same authoritarian fate.
It’s a fate of our own making. It’s a fate determined not by any external agent, but by the flawed premises (and resulting emotional states) of billions of people. Again, I see it almost every day in my therapy office, and I see it every time I turn on the news.
For all my sadness and anger over this condition that need not be so, I’m optimistic that people can survive so much of the damage they do to themselves and still emerge at least occasionally triumphant. Human beings are meant to be free and happy. But we must first convince ourselves that that’s a noble and worthy goal.
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