Happiness, Addiction, and Letting Go

I hope this time of year finds you and your family happy. I want to share some thoughts on this topic of happiness and also to inform you of developments in the office since our last blog.

One happy note since then, Dr. Kevin Cubala has joined our practice with a particular specialty with children and adolescents. He also sees adults and has worked with a geriatric population. He has an added clinical focus as a Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor. I have long thought that much of the unrecognized distress in individuals and families is how to deal with addictions in ways that promote early focus on problem solving.

Can We Predict Our Own Future Happiness?

Regarding the area of happiness, there is a psychological concept called Affective Forecasting. The main idea behind this research by Dan Gilbert (Harvard) and Tim Wilson (University of Virginia) is that we have a bias when we predict future affect states in relation to positive or negative events. As it turns out, we are terrible at predicting how we will feel in the future. Our feelings in the present blind us to how we will make decisions in the future when we might be feeling differently, e.g., will that new car make you happy for as long as you imagine, will a job failure be as crushing as you assume, will the death in your family leave you bereft for year upon year, forever and ever?

I want to share with you a personal story. More than a few years ago, my wife and I drove our 18-year-old son off to college.  Michael had not said much about his upcoming college adventure to either of us. I suppose one might expect a psychologist’s son to be a little more chatty, but he takes after the dairy farmer side of my family: work hard, observe, and let your actions speak for you. So, figuring that no news is, of course, trustworthy, I was prepared to say good-bye to Michael and deal with my own grief of letting go. This adult strategy crashed completely with Michael’s tear constrained voice saying he was scared as we were driving toward the first campus meeting. I felt powerless to protect the one I loved from the fear of leaving home. I tried some fatherly advice that felt hollow. I talked with my wife who was feeling equally distressed, teary, and frustrated at comforting and leaving this man-child. Overall, I was miserable; he was miserable; we were all miserable. My wife wondered if we should not have let him choose a school so far away and was this a terrible mistake? Not a Kodak moment.

Blessedly, the next day we attended several orientation sessions that blunted a chunk of this heartache.  As we prepared to drive home, Michael did not want a long good-bye. He gave us all a hug, told us he loved us, and walked off to his dorm with his younger sister, Elizabeth, walking beside him for their final words. I will never forget this picture of my son walking away from us and towards his future. Shortly, my daughter returned to the van and we all climbed in and cried.

Two weeks later…as you might expect, with the passage of 14 days, my head, my heart, and my son were all at different spots. Michael regularly e-mailed and called us since the college launch. We provided regular advice that he continued to discount as typical parent advice and out of touch. I was glad to see, however, that he was reluctant to spend his own money on entertainment because “…things cost so much.” Was this be the beginning of financial wisdom. . .not quite?

So you can see, Michael was now at a better place and so were we. It is seductive to say the crucial difference is the passage of time, but I think not. Michael’s regular communication from the front made the difference.  Also, once again and not for all time, I learned that both sadness passes and the micromanagement of children, even 18 year olds, is not for the manager or one being managed. Life and separation from my son felt better, not perfect though.

The enduring principle is that happiness or sadness cannot be held onto with a conclusive grip. We falter when it comes to imagining how we will feel about something in the future. It isn’t that we get the big things wrong; but we overestimate the intensity and the duration of our emotional reactions to future events.  Happiness is related to the process of letting go. Bad events prove less intense and more transient than you will predict and good events prove less intense and briefer, as well.

There is wisdom in working on letting go in several areas, including:

  1. The need to control others and nature (I like the latter area, as I have labored long and hard trying to control my lawn and garden).
  2. The need to be right.

Experiment with the notion of letting go and see if practicing release does something positive to your heart.

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