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Why focusing on meaning, and not happiness, makes us better off

February 14, 2020 - By John J Donahue—Aeon

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Many adults will face psychological pain at some point in their lives. Striving for (and expecting) happiness can make that worse.

The notion that emotional pain and suffering reflect a deviation from a default happy baseline has been referred to as the “assumption of healthy normality.” But it’s a mistaken assumption. Estimates of the lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders indicate that around one in two adults will meet the criteria for a mental-health condition at some point in their lives. Given that psychological pain is so ubiquitous, we should focus less on what might make us happy, and more on achieving a sense of meaning, regardless of how we’re feeling. Psychotherapy should help people manage effective functioning while they are distressed, above and beyond aiming to reduce symptoms such as difficult thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) takes this approach, using mindfulness, acceptance, and other behavioral strategies to promote more flexible and value-driven behaviors. The goals in ACT are not necessarily to change or reduce one’s problematic thoughts or emotions, but to foster meaningful and effective behaviors regardless of mood, motivation, or thinking. In other words, the primary goal is to promote what therapists call “valued living.”

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