How many times today will somebody ask you how you’re feeling? But is feeling good the primary goal of our human experience? 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 often requires delayed gratification and difficult choices. In order to choose something of greater importance, we sometimes put off something of lesser importance. And it doesn’t always feel good to do that. Not feeling good every moment of the day doesn’t mean that you’re doing something wrong.
People make bad decisions and get addicted to things when they believe that perpetually feeling good is a worthy goal. 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’m here to tell you that the truth is exactly the opposite: The way you think is the primary cause of your feelings – depressed or otherwise. People will assume, “I’m depressed. Somebody needs to fix me while I passively sit back.” But a cognitive-behavioral therapist will tell you, “You’re feeling this way because of how you think. We have to 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’re based on negative thoughts and mistaken beliefs. Changing those will lead you to a better life.”
Authority figures make matters even worse. When the pursuit of “feeling good” leads to self-destruction, people are then 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 sick person, “You shouldn’t have been breathing all those years. If you hadn’t been breathing, you wouldn’t be alive to get sick.” Ridiculous, but it’s no different than telling a person to not be “selfish.” Not being selfish means not being self-interested. Self-preservation dictates that all living organisms must be self-interested to survive. Living is not the mistake; it’s the way one goes about it that causes psychological problems.
So, if feeling good is not the 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’re in command of your mind and your life; exercising free will as competently as you can. Along with that sense of control comes a healthy lack of concern for things you can’t 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 goes after goals that he knows are attainable. The refusal to waste time on what one can’t control frees up the energy to achieve what one knows is worth working for.
At this point, people often say, “Easier said than done.” True enough. But we have to start somewhere, and the path to good mental health requires that we stop trying to just feel good, and instead learn to love what life has to offer us. And indeed, in the short run it might not feel good to use our minds to expand and maintain our mental health.
Everything of value was achieved by someone using their reasoning, thinking and rational mind. 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.
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