Therapy and Happiness

Unresolved trauma can develop into a stuck place of remembering painful experiences over and over and over without resolution or relief.
History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again. —Maya Angelou*

We need courage, and other people, to find our way out of the cycle of pain.

childhood traumaJenna*, a 38-year-old single woman, feels her biological clock ticking. Jenna has had several relationships that lasted months, but never years. Jenna met each potential partner at a club after a few drinks when her inhibitions and judgment were low. The relationships became physical right away. Before long, Jenna found herself again “in love” with a man who reminded her of her father. Charismatic but lacking insight or compassion, the man would distance himself and eventually wander away from her. This caused Jenna so much pain, she would yell at and criticize her potential life partner. The more he pulled away, the more she yelled; the more she yelled, the more he pulled away. It was a vicious cycle. After each breakup, Jenna regressed to her frightened 9-year-old self who huddled in her room whenever her parents fought. An only child, Jenna had hoped her parents would get divorced or die, then worried that her thoughts might hurt them and that the fighting was her fault. Jenna’s parents were heavy drinkers. They were so consumed with their addictions and each other, they paid little attention to Jenna. The memories intrude on Jenna and cause her to feel shame and sadness. She thinks about doing something to relieve the pain. Twelve-step programs are a good start, group and individual therapy could be helpful as well.

There’s nothing “wrong” with Jenna. Jenna did all she could, with the emotional skills available to her at the time, to survive a scary and difficult childhood. Unmanageable fear, anger, and sadness are common in adults who have had traumatic childhoods. So is avoiding social interactions, and fighting. The memories become an inner critic that reflects the voices heard, a voice that says, “You’re a no good, unworthy, loser.” Painful messages to hear; shameful concepts to talk about. So, I am not surprised when I hear people say that therapy is not for her or him because, they don’t want to talk about the wrenching pain of the past. Sometimes it’s too much to think about.

Yet, summoning the courage to tell your story to another person in “talk therapy” has been shown to be effective in healing from trauma. Doing so means taking a risk that the other person will listen without judgment or criticism and will understand what you’ve experienced, what you feel.

Therapy doesn’t stop there. Not anymore. Talking about painful memories is only part of the healing process. We’ve learned that only focusing on pain and suffering or anger and fear does not lead to healing as originally thought. To heal, we need a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel, hope, something to replace the pain and rewire the brain. So, while it’s important to acknowledge the pain, fear, sadness, and anger, it’s also important to actively work toward recovery and happiness.

Positive Psychology

Martin Seligman, PhD. is the founder of Positive Psychology. He discovered and studied learned helplessness, a response to repeated unsuccessful attempts to escape pain and threat. In Authentic Happiness, (2002, p. 28) he describes a conversation that he had with his then 5-year-old daughter, Nikki. He had snapped at her for dancing and throwing weeds in the air while he was gardening. She walked away and after a few minutes returned to tell her father that if she could stop whining, which she had, he could stop being a grouch. This conversation changed the direction of Dr. Seligman’s work, which has had a profound effect on the way we think about the human experience, psychology, therapy, and our clients.

Research indicates that the essential ingredients for living a long, healthy, satisfying life are: close connections with others, a purpose higher than oneself, a genetically set high base-level of happiness, and daily habits that support and increase happiness. Money helps too, but only to a certain degree.

Close connections with others

You may be one of the fortunate few who has a loving family, close friends, a kind and caring life partner. But what if you are less fortunate. What if you have a dysfunctional family of origin, no close friends, and no partner. Can you still be happy? Maybe. Depends on what you’re willing to change. Introverts particularly find the emphasis on relationships to be, shall we say, annoying extroverted thinking. While you may want more satisfying relationships, that may not be your top priority. If it is, are you willing to take classes, join social groups, or safely meet people online?

Purpose higher than yourself

This can be a career, a volunteer job, being a parent, a good friend, or even attitude. In Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman tells the story about visiting a close friend who was a patient at the hospital. The man was in a coma and his neurologist had just asked Dr. Seligman to sign a release to take the man off life support. A few minutes later, a hospital employee came into the room. He was taking deliberate time deciding which pictures to take down and which pictures to hang on the walls in the room. Dr. Seligman, the curious scientist, asked the man about his job. He said, “I’m an orderly on this floor…I bring in prints and photos every week. You see, I’m responsible for the health of all these patients. Take Mr. Miller here. He hasn’t woken up since they brought him in, but when he does, I want to make sure he sees beautiful things right away” (pp. 167-168). The orderly did not have a big shiny career with a lot of status. He had turned what he did have into a purpose higher than himself.

Base-level of happiness

Some people are born with a cheerier disposition than others. You can see that in any newborn nursery. One baby is more sensitive to stimuli than another. One cries more. Another sleeps quietly most of the day. Research indicates that we have a genetic set point. I am not convinced that this cannot change, but the science indicates it cannot. In any case, yours is fine, whatever it is. Just know that while the base level may not change, another whopping 40% of our perception of happiness can change. To learn more about this, read Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s work and her blog on Psychology Today’s web site. She studies and teaches the science of happiness at the University of California Riverside.

Habits that support and increase happiness

This is where the exciting news lies. If you are not as happy as you would like to be, are you are cultivating happiness in all the right places? Or are you focusing too much on momentary pleasure and not enough on the bigger picture? Neuroscientists have confirmed with fMRI’s and other technology that habits, reactions, patterns of behavior and relating, are not set in concrete as originally thought. The brain has the “smarts” to change. You are what you practice.

Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.

Mahatma Gandhi

Some therapists have moved so far away from the “what’s wrong” medical approach, that we don’t even refer to people in therapy as patients. We see the work as a collaborative process and the client as the expert with agency in her or his life.

Certainly, there is  still a need for the diagnosis and treatment of mental illnesses, many of which require psychiatric intervention and medication to manage symptoms. But the people I see are seeking, in one way or another, relief from pain and more happiness in life.

*Found on Brainy

**Jenna is a fictional character; photo from


If this topic interests you, go a little further and visit with the founder and major contributors to Positive Psychology: