Emotional dissonance

“But I SHOULD be happy. Why am I not happy?”

Emotional Dissonance

Why, indeed, are so many people unhappy; when, by objective standards, they should be happy? Objective standards being things like choice of occupation, income in excess of needs, home ownership, a long term committed relationship, smart and compliant children, religious membership and observance, good health, etc.

Few lives are so idyllic. Most people are more likely to experience some combination of dead-end job, insufficient income, high rent, spousal abuse or divorce, deadbeat kids, lack of spirituality, poor health, etc.

Emotional dissonance reflects the difference between objective standards and subjective experience.

The difference lies in one word, Should. That word turns seemingly objective standards into subjective. ‘Should’ reflects social learning. You learned somewhere you need a six-figure income, 2 cars no older than 3 years, 4,000 square feet of living space, a completely conflict-free intimate relationship, children with straight A’s and no discipline issues, largesse for charitable giving and tithing, and a gym membership.

If that all happens, and you are happy, congratulations. But if you merely aspire to all that; and it’s not happening—or you have achieved it, but keeping it produces undue stress—and that makes you unhappy; you may be climbing the wrong mountain.

Happiness is a state of mind, not a race to be won.

American culture perseverates on the notion that everyone should aspire to MORE. But HAPPY people are those with ENOUGH. Yes, it is a challenge to re-configure aspirations downward; but sustainability is much less stressful than straining.

The path to emotional consonance lies in working toward true happiness as opposed to social standards. Convince yourself you have enough. Accept that you have done your best and release deadbeat adult children to the universe. If you are attached to the wrong person in a doomed relationship, release that person as well. But before you act precipitously, make sure it is not YOU who is the problem. Yes, accepting that type of responsibility produces emotional dissonance as well, but it can be overcome with professional help.

Once this process begins, you may discover some things that are not as bad as you thought, or maybe not as bad as they need to be. The most obvious solution is to strategize how to align income with lifestyle. Stop living on the hope of promotion and bonuses that have been perpetually just beyond your reach. Start living within your means. That may mean moving to a smaller residence, reducing recurring expenses—basic belt-tightening.

Then consider how you approach your work. If relocation is not an option, do not wait any longer for changes you cannot control; look for things you CAN control and reward yourself for personal achievements; i.e., keep your own scorecard, even if you are the only person who knows about it.

When the inevitable aspirational thoughts recur and cause you to question your status, consider 1) you are better off than people with less than you, and 2) just because someone has more ‘stuff’ than you does not make them happier than you. Objectively, they have more things. Subjectively, you have greater happiness. Let them work through the emotional dissonance of trying to figure out how you can be happier with less. 

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