Happiness Comes from Choosing Values Over Feelings

My therapy clients are always a little shocked when I tell them the following:

My job is not to help you feel better; it’s to help you live better.

Obviously, I can’t tell them how to live. But it is my job to help them clarify for themselves how they aspire to live and then help them pursue that vision to the best of their ability, often despite how they feel emotionally.

Of course, a long-term side effect of living a life in pursuit of your values is that pleasurable feelings like pride, confidence, and happiness tend to follow. But paradoxically, this can only happen when they’re not the explicit goal.

The more I study psychology and work with people who struggle emotionally, the more I realize that both happiness and mental health are the results of learning to make values-based decisions rather than feelings-based decisions. And this is the central idea of psychiatrist Michael Bennett and his comedian daughter Lisa’s wonderfully irreverent book, F*ck Feelings: One Shrink’s Practical Advice for Managing All Life’s Impossible Problems.

What follows is a collection of my favorite quotes and passages from the book along with some brief thoughts of my own on each.


On Loss

Accept that there are some losses that never stop hurting, so you can stop delving into them, get used to living with a heavy heart, and try to build a better life.

Acceptance is hard because it means willingly giving up the possibility of control. Sadness means loss, and loss is final. It’s uncontrollable. The tragedy of ruminating on our losses is the terrible opportunity cost of losing out on the rest of life.

Sadness isn’t the problem. It’s the unwillingness to be sad that ends up hurting us the most.

On Self-Improvement

Eventually, striving to improve yourself brings diminishing returns and prevents you from accepting yourself and living with what you’ve got.

I find this line between self-improvement and self-acceptance to be quite tricky. Because it’s likely one of those lines that are always moving and appear in different places for different people at different times and in different domains.

Probably the best thing to do is work to improve our awareness of the inevitable tension between the two so that we never swing too far in one direction at the expense of the other.

On Accountability

You should never hold yourself accountable for results you don’t control, but always for the strength of trying.

I often give parents the following advice: Praise effort not outcomes.

It applies just as much to adults, including ourselves.

Cultivate the mental habit of evaluating and praising your effort not the outcomes of your effort.

On Fairness

Whatever good or focused thoughts, wishes, or prayers you put out there, shit happens and it won’t be fair.

The expectation of fairness is a form of psychosis—it’s a detachment from reality.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to create a world that is more fair and just. It doesn’t even mean that we shouldn’t hope for fairness. But to expect it is foolish.

The Just World Fallacy is the beating heart of suffering.

On Self-Like

You can like what you do with your choices, even if you don’t love yourself.

Many people seem to demand that they love themselves—all the time and with utter purity.

Seems like a high bar.

In my experience, the willingness to settle for self-like is more doable and far more pleasant.

On Other People

Knowing when you can’t make people happy, even when you want to with your whole heart, is essential to changing your goal to one that’s constructive and achievable instead of dangerous and exhausting.

“Make people happy” is an oxymoron.

No one has direct control over their emotions, and certainly not over those of other people.

You can take actions which may indirectly help people to achieve their own happiness with time. But there are a lot of steps there—a lot of contingencies—between your desire for someone else’s happiness and their realization of it.

Adjust your expectations accordingly.

On Brokeness

Living with a broken heart is hard, but it can never doom you to being a broken person.

Death is the only time we break as people.

When people chronically feel broken it’s not because they don’t understand this intellectually. It’s because they spend their whole lives telling themselves the opposite in their heads.

How we feel is the result of how we think. And how we habitually feel is the result of how we habitually think.

Want to feel less broken? Cultivate more realistic habits of mind and self-talk.

On Love

Working hard at managing love doesn’t mean becoming supremely unselfish and generous in a totally unconditional, nonjudgmental way; it means becoming very judgmental about what you can expect from other people and yourself and putting conditions on whom you allow yourself to get close to, love be damned.

I’m not sure when judgment became a dirty word, but being in denial about our capacity to make rational judgments of people and circumstances isn’t doing anyone (or their mental health) and good.

The trouble, I think, is that being nonjudgmental is easier than taking a stand. You keep yourself safe from confrontation and criticism and hard work.

“If I don’t judge, nobody will judge me.” We tell ourselves.

True—they’ll be so busy walking all over you that they won’t even remember to pass judgment on you.

On Venting

Remember, no matter what the conventional wisdom on venting is, nobody’s ever died from bottling up their anger, but plenty of people have died, usually violently, from letting their anger out.

The catharsis theory of anger—that you need to “get anger out” in order for it to decrease—was disproven decades ago. Expressing your anger not only makes aggression more likely, it actually feeds the emotion itself instead of dissipating it.

So yeah, when it comes to anger, acknowledge it—validate it even—but don’t hesitate to lock it down.

On Bullies

Don’t get distracted by Assholes and their bad behavior in your home or workplace. Look instead at how they’re dealt with by the powers that be and decide what you need to do to protect yourself and find a better place to live and work.

It’s a mistake to assume that you must always change your thinking in order to deal with a problem.

Often the best way to feel better is to summon the courage to make a change in your life.

Bullies don’t respond to your new perspective on things. They respond to your actions.


On Self-Esteem

It’s my experience as a psychologist and therapist that the core of emotional suffering comes down to a simple but dangerous mistake we all fall into called Emotional Reasoning, which means making decisions based on how we feel rather than our values.

Emotion is information—sometimes helpful, sometimes junk, but never dangerous or God’s truth.

Rather than immediately responding to it—either by unthinking obedience or reactive avoidance—what if we learned how to acknowledge emotions for what they are but made our final decisions based on values and reason?

Doing what you believe is worthwhile is the only source of real self-esteem… Loss of self-esteem in service of good values is no sin; self-esteem arising from good feelings is no virtue. — Michael and Sarah Bennett

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