I am one of many millennials, raised as children of the 1990s and graduates of the 21st Century. I am also being trained to practice as a postgraduate clinical psychologist. In this article, we will explore our generation’s ongoing search for happiness from a personal and psychological perspective.
Children of Promise
Let’s start with how we were raised as ‘children of promise’.
We grew up in the 1990s at the cusp of the new millennium. Our schooling years saw the advent of the internet, online messaging, Pokémon, LAN gaming, and the mobile phone. Our millennial generation was raised in an atmosphere of optimism borne about by the liberalisation of China, end of the Cold War, and rise of technological progress. Our teachers and parents always had absolute faith in that we could be anything we wanted to be as long as we worked hard for it.
However, as we graduated from university in the 2000s, that optimism seems to have gradually thinned out. Still there, albeit less so. In the words of another article, the dismay arose ‘when the generation that was raised thinking they could be whatever they wanted to be meets the worst economy in generations’. The result was some graduates found it hard to secure full-time employment, and for those who did manage to find one, they found their roles or income unappealing. We were left in a state of muted peril, wondering if we are ever able to afford the homes and cars our parents had. I’ve even met lawyers, engineers, accountants, and medical professionals who felt that their ‘model Asian’ careers were unfulfilling. For all the money they earned, they don’t seem to be any happier than the graduate who was jobless.
Understanding the Source of Our Unhappiness
The nature of the dismay we face has its roots in adolescence (i.e. from puberty to the assumption of adult roles) and our ability to conceive of rewards that are abstract, distant in the future, and social in nature. Termed as a ‘structured event complex’, it is one explanation for the increasing rates of depression throughout adolescence into the mid-twenties (Davey et al., 2008).
The development of our brains, particularly our prefrontal cortex, permits the development of a sequence of goal-directed activities where short-term goals are intended to lead to longer-term goals.
Study hard = Score well = Go to university = Land a prestigious/well-paying job = Own a house/car = Live happily ever after.
This process is called a ‘structured event complex’. Every intermediate step in a complex gains its meaning from the final goal. We expect a particular reward along the way, and the absence of these rewards has a suppressive effect on our reward system as a whole. A few hits and we may be demoralised. A few more hits in the absence of personal supportive factors, and we may become depressed.
These hits are what we are facing now. For some, the hits involve unsatisfying jobs post-graduation. For others, the hits may involve missing out on university altogether. A structured event complex can be used to describe any meaningful goal in life, whether it’s about finding a partner or winning that gold medal at your next competition. What’s common in all of them is how little control we have over the overall picture. Remember the lawyers I was telling you about and how they felt so unhappy about their lives? Everything went right – top grades, law school, ‘model Asian’ profession – but they still felt like they lost the fight because they did not find the life they thought they would.
However, as one saying goes:
“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness, that is life.”
Fortunately, there is a way to work towards your dreams with better equanimity.
Better Living with Acceptance and Commitment
You may have heard of ‘mindfulness’ mentioned in self-help literature or corporate workshops. It was inspired by Buddhist philosophy and practices that made its way into scientific therapeutic approaches. There are three major research-backed schools of mindful psychotherapies:
- Dialectical Behavioural Therapy
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Our focus is on a simplified version of ACT that is light on jargon. Despite its name, ACT is not about resigning oneself to the status quo. Instead, it is accepting that life carries inevitable periods of pain as well as happiness while we take action that is in line with our values. Pain starts to seep across different aspects of life because thoughts are often taken at face value and accepted as truths.
In my work as a psychologist, many clinically depressed individuals often have the following thought pattern:
“If I succeed at X (e.g. work, study), then I’m successful.”
“If I don’t succeed at X, then I’m a failure.” (Looking forlorn)
Note how success or failure is internalised as a global trait. It’s seen as a failure of their entire person rather than a failure that only happened in that one instance or area of life. The depressed individual often expresses this in a forlorn and resigned manner. At the same time, those sentences seem to make sense right? Well, not quite. Once they recover, I’ve seen this happen:
“If I succeed at X, then I’m successful.”
“If I don’t succeed X, then I try harder/again.”
Notice how the ‘I’ is now no longer associated with a label of negative self-judgement. Instead, the focus is on what the ‘I’ does. By the time clients recover to this level, they often say the above in a neutral, matter-of-factly manner. That emotional heaviness is gone.
This example show how language can dominate the way we think, feel, and eventually respond to the world around us. The ACT version of mindfulness helps us change the way we relate to the language in our heads.
Acceptance of Thoughts
We avoid unpleasant thoughts. It’s a natural reaction and helpful when we need to respond quickly to work demands or other urgencies. After all, thoughts about running to the exit are helpful in a burning building. However, once the crisis is over, it is detrimental to ponder about what we lost in that building or whether another one is about to catch fire. Similarly, thoughts that makes us worry or over-evaluate our lives when we’re trying to improve it are only going to make us upset without making any material difference.
It is in the nature of disturbing thoughts to pop up repeatedly and attempts to control them can become tiring and ineffective. It may be more effective to change the way we relate to thoughts. Instead of running to Candy Crush, drinking that cup of iced coffee, or eating your chips when these thoughts arise, try to sit with these thoughts and accept them as they flow past our minds.
They don’t feel good at first, but you’ll find that they pass shortly and you’ll return to a neutral state. We’re not feeding that thought (e.g. “If I’m a failure, what if x? Or y? Or z happens?), nor are we trying to push it away (e.g. “I’m a failure? I can’t think this way, it’s not good, it’s not what I want to be”). We simply let it be - a state known as ‘acceptance’. It forms the bedrock of ACT.
You’ll find that acceptance will allow your thoughts to cause less distress and pass more quickly. It is best learnt and understood through mindfulness meditation. The best part is that you can learn this for free in ten to twenty minutes through an app called ‘Headspace’.
Through acceptance, we learn to view our thoughts as just solely thoughts, and not as truths that we are bonded or chained to. Recognising thoughts as such is known as ‘defusion’. That is, we are not ‘fused’ with thoughts in a way that mistakes them for reality.
Fixed Views vs. Open Views
Remember the structured event complex from above? In essence, that means that we have a fixed view of what our futures, and ourselves, should look like. It also conveys what our past selves and situations should have been like. You can tune into your own thoughts about fixed views by noting when the words “should”, “must”, “will”, or “have to” come into your head because it is hard to talk about our futures, pasts, and selves without using these words. For example:
“I should go the university straight after NS/JC/Polytechnic, graduate on time, find a job within a few months. I must also get married by 28.”
We’ve also discussed how this line of fixed thinking can really wear us down mentally, especially when things don’t go as planned. Building on the previous example:
“Oh no! It’s been 3 months and I’m still searching for a job. It’s so hard to meet people as well and I’m still single. This should not have happened. I’m such a loser.”
Well, guess what. This person is not a loser. They are experiencing a thought that they’re a loser because they have a fixed idea of how things must be. These words of judgement in their head are mistaken for a reality that they think is true. Instead of having such a fixed idea about these things, it is more helpful to view ourselves with an open mind. This means that we recognise that we are the experiencer of fleeting thoughts, not an object defined by those same thoughts.
For example, there were times where you’ve experienced self-doubt. There were also times where you felt amazingly confident. Both can’t be simultaneously true about you. You may rebut by saying that you feel differently at different times, and I would completely agree with you: you are the experiencer of these different thoughts and feelings, not a fixed embodiment of those thoughts and feelings. Through mindfulness and acceptance, we learn to distance ourselves from these fleeting (mis)conceptualisations of who we are.
The same openness can be applied to how we see our past and futures. Anxiety is an apprehension about future events and potential negative outcomes. Regret is a sense of sadness over past issues that did not go the way we wanted and a desire to correct or avoid similar events again. Both can be instructive because they tell us about what we value in our lives. Both can also be unhelpful because they make us dwell on time frames that we really can’t act upon. At any given time, we only have the present work on. Also, we always have the opportunity of the present. Through acceptance, we learn to let thoughts of the past or future come and go instead of dwelling on them. Instead, we focus on what we can do in the here and now.
The person in the example above would benefit more by realising that:
“Well, there is self-doubt, sure. Can’t push that away, but thinking about it all the time isn’t helping my feelings or situation. Let’s see if there’s something I’m doing wrong in searching for a job and a partner. I guess these things take more time and luck then I realised and having ‘deadlines’ for myself makes no sense. I might as well make use of the free time now to pick up a hobby or sign up for a course.”
So far, we’ve talked about the importance of acceptance, keeping an open mind, and staying focused on the present. However, we are not monks and nuns in an obscure Himalayan monastery. The future is important to us. How, then, shall we pursue it?
Values and Committed Action
To start with, drop the goals. As we have already seen, goal attainment is not as within our control as we think, or like to think, they are. Secondly, goal attainment comes and goes quite quickly. If the goal is achieved, congratulations. Now that it’s achieved, what next? If that goal was not achieved, that’s tough. But not achieving it is another stage over too. So what’s next?
Instead of investing our emotions in fleeting goals that we may or may not achieve, why don’t we try investing them in values instead? ‘Values’ in ACT are defined as “desired global qualities of on-going action”. Values are “on-going” because you can always to choose to act in accordance with them, unlike goals that come and go.
For example, winning a sports tournament is a goal. Once the tournament is over, the goal ceases to inform your behaviour. In contrast, doing your best is a value. You can achieve this in a tournament, during training, or the next tournament. It is something you can always choose to do. Values are also “global qualities” because they unite various patterns of behaviour. They are how you do something. Using the sports metaphor again, you can train to pass the time, train because your coach told you to, or train by putting in your best effort. The goals you had and the goals that you have do not tell how you to develop yourself now – your values do.
One way to understand your goals is to write your ideal eulogy. Let’s say you died and left a letter you’d like someone to read at your funeral. That letter describes what matters to you and how you have lived. Here are two examples:
“Charles lived a life where he had clear goals. If it’s good, we should get it.
He scored straight As for high school but barely did well enough to graduate.
He became a lawyer and, after his boss promoted him, eventually bought the house and car he always wanted.
He also married Charlene, but he married later than he aimed to.
On his death bed, Charles recognised that he only met half of his life goals. He had mixed feelings about the way life turned out, but I hope he can now rest in peace.”
“Charles lived a life where he believed in doing his best. If it’s good, we should do our best.
His grades wavered throughout his life but he always did the best he could.
He became a lawyer and worked with the same ethos in mind. His boss promoted him and Charles bought the house and car he always wanted.
He married Charlene, and even though he married late, he always did his best for her.
On his death bed, Charles recognised that he did not get all the things he wanted in life. However, he knew he did his best. He died peacefully, knowing that he made life the best it could have been with the cards he had to play with.”
In the goal-driven life, we can see how a focus on that ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ of goals brought Charles from event to event. He kept score all the way to his dying breath and lived a life of ‘yes’ and ‘buts’. It seemed like nothing was ever good enough for Charles and he was always preoccupied by preconceived notions of what should have been and must be. In the value-driven life, we see a different Charles. It showed someone who took the ups and downs in his stride, knowing that the best he could do was the best thing to do. He did not keep score. Instead, he stayed true to his values and died knowing with a sense that his life was complete. He lived the way he wanted: A life where he did his best, not a life where he kept score (think Forrest Gump). The two Charles aimed for and had the same wealth, honour, and love in life but lived differently. One focused on goals he did/didn’t achieve, while the other focused on his values.
Which Charles would you rather be like?
Now that we’ve talked about values, we can come back to goals with a new understanding. Once we are clear about our values, we can think about goals in a more constructive way. With a value-driven life, goals become ways to materialise those values rather than end destinations in-themselves. For example, goal-driven Charles might aim to complete all legal cases on time in order to get promoted. If he does not, he might wonder what all the effort was for and feel disheartened. That’s his structured event complex at work. Or he might get promoted and feel like he can take it easy. In contrast, value-driven Charles might aim to complete all legal cases on time because it’s part of what he sees as doing his best. This value provides meaning and purpose to his efforts. Of course he’d like to get promoted too, but he’s not keeping score and won’t get complacent even if he moves up the ranks. Both Charles have the same goal of completing all cases on time.
Again, which Charles would you like to be?
Tying It All Together
The combination of acceptance, open views, and values/committed action is known as psychological flexibility. It means that we are flexible in our understanding of what the situation is now, and what it can be in the near future. This is summarised in the triangle below:
It’s normal to aspire in life and enjoy the victories. It is also normal to feel the pain along the way. I hope this article provides some perspective that may help ease your difficulties in your personal journey. Just remember:
- Complex pathways towards desired ends can be painful
- Mindful acceptance helps us flow with painful thoughts and feelings
- Acting in the present can help you more than dwelling on the past or future
- Your values will guide your goals and give meaning to your actions. These values and meaning, rather than goals per se, form the basis of a happier life.
This article gives you a very basic introduction into how therapy can help us engage better with life. There are many other forms of therapy and a psychologist can customise them for you. Ask your neighbourhood GP for a referral to a psychologist if you feel need more than self-help. Many private practitioners can also be found online.
- Davey, C.G., Yucel, M., & Allen, N.B. (2008). The emergence of depression in adolescence: Development of the prefrontal cortex and the representation of reward. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32, 1–19.
- Harris, R. (2009). ACT Made Simple: An easy-to-read primer on acceptance and commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
- Memory Alpha (no date). Peak performance (episode). Retrieved from http://memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/Peak_Performance_(episode)