The Surprising Truth About Happiness

“When I stop getting triggered by memories of my abuse, I’ll be happy.” “When I can stop thinking about the past, I’ll be happy.” “If I can just hang on until next year, I’ll be happy.” Have you ever had thoughts like these? Sexual abuse survivors sometimes focus on the past and the future at the expense of finding satisfaction in the present. While it might be easier to think that happiness and peace will come at some point in the future, why not right now?

We’ve been trained to think that happiness comes when we have achieved all of our goals and feel like we’re successful at things. The formula we learn is this: “When I’m successful, I’ll be happy.” A survivor might use that formula to think, “When I’m totally healed from my abuse, I’ll be happy.” But what if the reverse were true? What if rather than success leading to happiness, happiness leads to success? In The Happiness Advantage, author Shawn Achor claims exactly that. He says that society teaches us that “if we work hard enough, we will be successful, and only if we are successful will we become happy.” But according to Achor, “the opposite is true… Happiness is at the center, and success revolves around it.”[1]

Unhappiness can shut down our brains and our motivation whereas happiness can help us tap into positive and productive actions and thoughts: “Waiting to be happy limits our brain’s potential for success, whereas cultivating positive brains makes us more motivated, efficient, resilient, creative, and productive.”[2] In other words, rather than believing that once you succeed you’ll be happy, it might be more helpful to believe that once you’re happy, you’re more empowered to succeed.

None of this is to say that being happy is easy. The way that trauma impacts your life is real, and it’s difficult to deal with. You should never feel guilty for the emotions and the pain that you face. But the reality is that you deserve to be happy, and you deserve to be happy now. If you can find happiness in the present, it might accelerate your healing journey. Unhappiness can make it hard to have hope and find the motivation to make changes in your life.

The 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope can help you find happiness in the present. Awareness, in particular, focuses on helping you become more grounded in the moment. Realize that the only time that something can happen is now, and you want the here and now to be good. Mindfulness gives you the power of choice. You can choose to focus on empowering thoughts and feelings while co-existing with non-productive thoughts and feelings.

Dealing with trauma is hard, and there are probably moments when it feels like the pain of the past might overwhelm the progress you’re working so hard to make on your healing journey. But instead of letting those moments make you feel like happiness will never come, try smiling at yourself in the mirror or thinking of something you’re grateful for. See if it makes any difference in the moment. Focusing on the positive and meaningful things in your life may help you heal faster—and it just might make life a little bit better today.

[1] Achor, S. (2010). The happiness advantage. New York, NY: Crown Business. P. 37.
[2] Achor, p. 4.