Unhappiness is not necessarily the result of environment or situations. Happiness or misery, health or ill-health, are choices we make!
Frank and Jerry work side by side in the same office. Same nagging boss. Same impossible deadlines. Same cramped and noisy office quarters. Same meagre salary (with the same basic financial obligations). Frank develops an ulcer; Jerry doesn’t.
What accounts for the difference between happiness and misery, health and illness?
Obviously, this is a question with no simple answer. There are a million factors that affect our attitudes and vulnerability to illness – not the least of which, we’d like to think, include heredity and the hand of fate. But many researchers who are studying this phenomenon are convinced that the deciding factor is firmly in our control. Happiness or misery, health or illness, they say, are choices each of us makes.
That misfortune is not misfortune at all, but our own doing, is not the easiest concept to accept, says psychologist Dennis T. Jaffe, co-director of the Center for Health Studies at Saybrook Institute, San Francisco. If you have trouble swallowing that notion, don’t worry. How you got to your present state of emotional and physical health isn’t so important, Dr. Jaffe explains. What is important is knowing that you can take control of the situation now – that achieving happiness and health is totally within your power. It’s your decision.
To do this, however, it’s necessary to understand how we set ourselves up for misery in the first place; how we unconsciously – and sometimes, consciously – undermine our own well-being; in short, how we sabotage our best chances for happiness and the good health that comes with it.
Here, then, is Jaffe on how you can recognize – and reverse – self-destructive attitudes:
Question: If, as psychologists tell us, happiness is a choice we make, why would anyone choose to be miserable?
Dennis Jaffe: Usually it’s an unconscious choice based on negative thought patterns developed while growing up. If you continually feel frustrated by negative events you may eventually develop patterns of thinking such as, “I’ll never get what I want” or, “I know it won’t work; it never does.” This leads to a deeply-ingrained belief that happiness is unattainable. The rest becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Question: IS it possible to deprogramme negative thought patterns?
Dr. Jaffe: Yes, it is. But you have to keep in mind that if we spend a long time learning these negative things, it’s going to take a long time to unlearn them. Changing our belief structure is not a short-term process. It involves re-education, positive imagery, and psychotherapy.
Question: What’s the most difficult thing for most people to re-learn?
Dr. Jaffe: That you can’t go around blaming the world for your unhappiness. If you’re unhappy, it’s your choice.
I do a lot of stress management workshops and people come in all the time complaining that they’ve been victimized, that their environment is driving them crazy, that they’re collapsing under the weight of stress. They see their problem as being external. The actual fact is, stress has to do with the interaction between a changing environment and you. You see, it’s not the stress that drives you crazy. It’s your own response to that stress that’s causing the problem. In other words, a high-stress job won’t make you sick. But if you don’t pay attention to your body and know your own limits and needs in relating to this job, that could conceivably make you ill.
Question: We’re all aware of the type of people who seem to superimpose stress on their lives, setting unrealistic goals, working against the clock, rejecting anything less than perfect, delegating few tasks because “no one can do it like I can.” Social scientists have labelled this collection of traits the Type A personality. But by referring to this pattern of behaviour as a “personality”, they suggests to us that it is something inherent to our character, that we are “by nature” driven to behave that way. Not surprisingly, too, people so possessed – the workaholics, perfectionists, worries – often resign themselves to an I-can’t-help-myself-I-just-am state of mind. How much control do we really have over a self-destructive personality?
Dr. Jaffe: That depends on your motivation to change.
First let me say that Type A is not a personality. That is misconception that’s perpetuated by many people in my field. When you call something a personality, you make it seem unnecessarily rigid. Unchangeable. But when you think of Type A as a series of behaviour patterns, you see that each one of those patterns is nothing more than a bad habit. You can work on changing a habit. It’s difficult and it takes time, but you can do it. You can change.
Question: Are there other behaviour patterns that can increase our susceptibility to, say, cancer or other illness?
Dr. Jaffe: The cancer pattern is well-established in the literature. It’s characterized by feelings of helplessness and hopelessness – the sense that you’ve been victimized by factors beyond your control and that you have no power to change that.
In recent years we’ve discovered that this same pattern of behaviour is connected to other illnesses. Rheumatoid arthritis. Allergies. Any immune-related disease – including Autoimmune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). It’s as if your immune system is acting analogously with your behaviour. You’re not trying to change your life or take care of yourself – in essence, you’ve just given up – and your immune system says, well if you’ve given up, so will I. The result is that the immune system becomes depressed and you are susceptible to a whole host of illnesses.
Question: Has the Type A behaviour likewise been linked to other illnesses beyond heart disease?
Dr. Jaffe: Oh yes. Type A activity – being supercharged – can burn out your circulatory system and gastric system. So, in addition to heart attack, you find that people who behave this way very often suffer from hypertension, chronic headaches, ulcers, colitis.
I have a theory that there are essentially two different types of destructive behaviour patterns: One has to do with over-control – the Type A. The other has to do with under-control – the helplessness/hopelessness syndrome. Both relate to stress-coping styles. And the key word here is “control”.
Now there are all types of coping styles that fall between these two extreme poles of under- or over-control. The optimal behaviour falls right in the middle – the point of balance. I call it optimal control. The person who practices optimal control – the healthy person – seems to actively take care of the things that need to be taken care of and has the capacity to say no, that’s not my problem, I’m going to waste my energy worrying about things beyond my control. He’s got a realistic sense of personal power – not overpowered or underpowered.
Question: How do you keep yourself in check then, monitoring your stress response to ensure that you’re maintaining “optimal control”?
Dr. Jaffe: The key to the process is self-awareness. If you look at burned-out executives, people with health problems, people who have difficulty coping with stress, you’ll find that they all have a common characteristic: They do not tune in to their bodies. They’re not aware, until things really go awry, that stress is in fact taking its toll daily and needs to be countered somehow with a healthful, enriching activity.
For example, if you begin to become aware of the effect of your work patterns on your body, you might realize that you need to do something to balance your rhythms. For instance, if you’re sitting at a desk typing for eight hours straight, even taking your lunch at your desk, you may experiment by going to a salad-bar for a change. Or maybe what you need is to take a walk in the park after work. Then monitor yourself to see if that makes a difference in your energy level. People don’t understand that they need to listen to their bodies and exert control over their lives so that they are able to respond. That’s where time management and planning come in.
Question: Most people would characterize your lifestyle as high stress. You lecture all over the country, shuttle between offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles every week, work with five different institutions, conduct workshops, write books, see clients, and teach. Can you give us some specific examples of how you minimize the effect this lifestyle has on your outlook and health?
Dr. Jaffe: I don’t have a routine – I can’t because my days are so varied. But I maintain total control. I can cancel anything and I frequently do. Last week, for example, I felt overloaded so I cancelled my plans to attend a conference. I’m also devastatingly well-organized and I know how to set priorities. I never sweat the small stuff. But I tackle the important things according to their order of priority. I also schedule a lot of breaks, including fitness breaks.
Question: Are all people who handle stress well good organizers and time managers, or are some people just naturally stress-resistant?
Dr. Jaffe: Some people have the natural advantage of being physiologically tougher than others. It’s the same way with sports: Some people are just better tennis players than others.
But that doesn’t mean that those of us who get frazzled by minor hassles were born to burn out on stress. We just have to learn how to relate differently to ourselves. Suppose, for example, you feel hassled by an impolite sales clerk. You can choose to either shrug it off and say to yourself, “She must be having a bad day,” or take the affront personally and ask yourself, “Why does this always happen to me?” Choosing the later will cause your anger to escalate – a self-defeating response. You see, the clerk isn’t really important. What’s important is your response, which very often is based on your own self-esteem.
It’s a terrible health habit to get angry and hassled all the time. It’s as bad as smoking.
Question: Do you believe there’s an accident-prone behaviour pattern?
Dr. Jaffe: Yes. In fact, it too can be related to a stress response. Let’s say you’re walking down the street and you’re so tense and preoccupied with problems that you’re not paying attention. So you trip on a curb and break your arm. That’s obviously related to your inability to deal with stress. When you haven’t learned how to defuse your reactions to stress, you become uptight, exhausted, distracted. Of course, you’re going to be more susceptible to accidents.
Question: We occasionally read about a person who’s fallen ill with cancer or dies on an anniversary date of a parent’s illness or death. How much of this is the result of heredity and how much the result of emotional/psychological factors?
Dr. Jaffe: Genes are not timed release capsules. Anniversary reactions are related to emotional processes. If you have a heart attack on the anniversary of your father’s death, it’s not genetically predisposed. It’s caused by your own identification with your father and your expectation that you’ll be like him. In a way, it’s an exaggerated form of family loyalty. Sub-consciously, you feel that it would be disloyal to your father’s memory to live longer than he lived.
Question: can you recall such a case?
Dr. Jaffe: I had a client in his late 40s who suddenly began having anxiety attacks, really debilitating panic episodes that would come on any time of the day – but especially when he was driving a car.
As we talked he filled me in on his medical history and family health history. It came out that both his parents died in a car accident when he was 13 years old. They were in their late 40s. Obviously, he was remembering this experience and wondering whether it was going to happen to him – which it what brought on the panic attack in cars. But the interesting thing is, he never made the connection between his parents’ death and his own fears. I pointed it out. You see, he’s not consciously afraid of following his parents’ fate. This is something that is happening at an unconscious level.
Question: how can we deprogramme these thoughts?
Dr. Jaffe: One thing I taught this client was relaxation. Whenever he felt an anxiety attack coming on, I suggested that he pull over to the side of the road, turn off the car and just sit quietly for a while, breathing deeply and meditating to calm him down.
The second part of the therapy involved awareness. Once you explore your fears and become aware of any connections between past experiences and present difficulties, then you can come to realize that this is not something beyond your control. You can choose not to be affected. Affirmations help. For example, while you’re meditating, you can tell yourself that it’s OK to live longer than your parents.
YOUR OWN BEST FRIEND
Question: We’ve talked a lot about how we can undo negative patterns that we’ve developed while we were growing up. What advice can you give to today’s parents on how to prevent this negative patterning in the first place? How can we teach our children how to be their own best friend instead of their own worst enemies?
Dr. Jaffe: The most important thing anyone can teach their children is how to tune in to themselves. Children should be encouraged to become aware of their feelings and to express them. That’s not to say that you have little monsters running around screaming out of control. It means that your children feel comfortable sharing their feelings with you and that you’re there to listen.
It’s also important to build children’s self-esteem, giving them a real positive sense of themselves. That comes with a lot of positive praise and reinforcement. But praise for the right reasons. It’s not enough to tell kids they’re great for doing nothing. You should be complimenting them on their accomplishments.
New studies have underlined the importance of challenge in building children’s self-esteem. By offering your children a series of challenges, their own sense of accomplishment becomes enhanced. Initially, the external support (you telling them how well they performed) is very important. But as they grow up, their own internal self-esteem becomes most important. By the time they’re 8,9 or 10 years old, the external support isn’t important to them. What’s important is mastery. It’s more powerful for children to feel that they can hit a home run or ride a two-wheeler than to have their parents coddling then with meaningless compliments.