My husband says that he doesn’t understand why I’m always so negative about everything. He says I’m like Eeyore, always down in the mouth. Is this because of my childhood? Is it possible for me to be happy?
I’m always afraid that the other shoe will drop and my anxiety trumps my happiness every time. This is affecting almost all of my close relationships. What can I do?
These two comments are fairly typical of the messages I get from women who are in the process of healing from childhood experiences, and have read my book Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. It seems like a fair question, after all: Does being unhappy in childhood, neglected, ignored or unloved doom you to always being unhappy? The answer is no but there’s work to be done to make sure you can be as happy and at peace as possible.
What science knows about happiness
According to research conducted by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Kennon Sheldon, and David Schkade, there are three factors at play that determine whether you consider yourself happy: the happiness set point, life circumstances, and intentional activity.
- The Happiness Set Point is responsible for about fifty percent of your potential happiness; like your personality, it’s stable over time and genetically determined. Some people are inclined to be happy most of the time, others none of the time, and then there are those in the middle.
- Interestingly, life circumstances only account for ten percent of anyone’s happiness; these life circumstances include both positive and negative events (having a happy childhood or a lousy one, reaping academic rewards or failing miserably), as well as marital status, income, occupation, health, and religiosity. This sounds very counterintuitive but it’s explained by what’s called hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill. We expect that getting that sports car, that new job with more money, or that new house will make us eternally happy but the truth is that we adapt quickly to new circumstances and so, in time, the promise of eternal bliss just doesn’t get delivered. The fancy car just becomes your car in need of expensive maintenance, the new job will become familiar, and the house will need repainting in time. This explains why life circumstances only change how happy you are in the short-term,
- Together, the happiness set point and life circumstances only determine about sixty percent which leaves a full forty percent in your hands! There’s good news and bad news here when it comes to intentional activity.
Intentional activity and happiness
This is a huge grab-bag of sundry behaviors including behavioral activity ( doing things that make you happy like going for a walk, having brunch with friends, mentoring someone, taking classes), cognitive activity (reframing an event in your mind so that it doesn’t seem like a total loss, thinking about how you might learn from a mistake or misstep, using journaling to better understand your feelings and thoughts about a situation), and volitional activity (setting goals for yourself, figuring out to make a tense relationship in the office work better, planning for the future.) In their experiments, the researchers found that intentional activity had much more lasting effect on happiness than life circumstances over time.
There’s one wrinkle, though, that’s worth considering; a change in life circumstances can change your happiness for longer if you actually appreciate it and are grateful for it. Basically, you’re using intentional activity (feeling grateful or blessed) to boost and sustain the happiness you feel.
The unloved daughter and intentional activity
Until you’ve begun to unlearn the lessons of a toxic childhood, you may inadvertently self-sabotage your own efforts at sustaining your happiness by setting up unconscious roadblocks to intentional activity. Some of the common issues these adult women often see as making them unhappy or less happy than they might be are making and sustaining friendships, feeling comfortable in new surroundings, being accepted and feeling as if they belong, and setting goals for themselves. The following are the most common behaviors that are likely to get in the adult daughter’s way as she moves into her own future.
You’re motivated by fear of failure
Growing up with a controlling or hypercritical mother or one high in narcissistic traits, the daughter may have learned to avoid risk-taking because she knew the cost of failing in her mother’s eyes. When it came to setting her sights or choosing her path, she may always have been motivated by fear of failure and not the thrill of possible success. If you look at every possible opportunity as one in which you’ll be revealed as less than, it’s going to be very difficult to set goals intentionally and achieve them.
Fear of rejection which is closely allied to fear of failure will stand in your way as you try to expand your social circle and make new friends as well. Understanding the root cause of these unfounded fears is key to moving forward.
You don’t trust your perceptions or yourself
If you were constantly undermined and criticized in childhood or told that you were making things up or just plain wrong whenever you expressed your feelings and thoughts, the chances are good that you emerged into adulthood being hugely unsure about your take on things. Your lack of confidence will prevent you from trying new things or approaches that actually make you happier and stop you from spreading your wings when the old pathways have stopped working for you. You may default to silencing yourself or become a pleaser in order to keep minimal connections going too. Recognizing why you don’t trust yourself will pour the first layer of the foundation you need for self-confidence.
Self-criticism is always your response to a setback
Adults who were well-loved and supported in childhood understand that there’s always the risk of a setback or failure when they try something new or set their sights high; they’re more resilient to the hard bounce and more capable of getting up and regrouping when life goes south. You, on the other hand, pin the setback on your myriad flaws—yes, that’s the habit of self-criticism—which is probably an echo of what you were told about yourself in childhood. There’s a big difference between self-criticism and taking responsibility for your part in the debacle; your tendency to blame yourself will also blind you to seeing the other factors in the situation which might have made a difference. Basically, self-criticism prevents you from learning from experiences and handling things better the next time out.
Being unhappy in childhood doesn’t doom you to a lifetime of unhappiness. You have the power to be happy once you see the obstacles in the path.
Photograph by Gerait. Copyright free. Pixabay.com
Lyubomirsky, Sonja, Kennon M. Sheldon, and David Schkade, “Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change,” Review of General Psychology, 9. No. 2 (2005), 111-131.
Sheldon, Kennon M. and Sonja Lyubomirsky, “Achieving Sustainable Gains in Happiness: Change Your Actions, Not Your Circumstances,” Journal of Happiness Studies (2006)7, 55-86.