Emotional Wellness

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The Pursuit of Happiness   

 

By Rabbi David Sutton and Dr. David Katzenstein  

 

 

Intolerance to any inconvenience causes a lack of peace, and this is true across many contexts. For those who struggle with anxiety, the most effective method in addressing these fears is to confront them, to face them, to engage with them. The only way a child who is fearful of going into the pool will alleviate his anxiety is by getting into the water. And the longer he stays in the water, the less anxious he will become.   

 

It is important to emphasize this point.   

 

The longer one engages with the exact thing he is fearful of, the less anxious he will feel. This may seem paradoxical. Why is it that engaging in, or tolerating, the fear stimulus makes us less scared? Because the more we avoid something we are scared of, the more our anxiety grows. Each time we avoid something scary or uncomfortable, it reinforces within our brains that what it is we are fearful must, indeed, be avoided at all costs. And each avoidant experience further internalizes the fear and discomfort, making us believe that we must continue to avoid whatever it is we are afraid of.   

 

And the cycle goes on.   

 

Unless we confront it.   

 

The longer we remain with our anxiety in certain situations, the more we engage with our discomfort and the more we tolerate what we previously thought intolerable - the more confident and comfortable we become and the more our ability to truly tolerate continues to grow.   

 

When Better Off Isn’t Better 

 

Evidence of this truth is indicated by the fact that the countries that are the wealthiest, where life is perceived as more convenient and “easier,” have more residents who struggle with anxiety, and their ability to tolerate discomfort is woeful. A recent large-scale study demonstrated that those living in countries like Costa Rica, Armenia, or Ecuador - all environments with minimal emphasis on comfort and materialism - were happier across the board than we who live in the United States, where, ironically, one of our unalienable rights is the pursuit of happiness. Americans have done an amazing job at developing advancements to ostensibly make our lives more convenient and comfortable.   

 

Yet, somehow, we are less happy and more anxious than those living in environments that almost all of us would deem “intolerable,” even unlivable. 99 percent of the U.S. population lives more comfortably than the richest man in America did a mere hundred years ago. 99 percent of us have running water, electricity, gas, and a refrigerator/ freezer. We certainly have more clothing than we could possibly need. In 1952, women in the United States had an average of four outfits in their closet. In today’s society, the average is over fifty. Yes, we have more luxury than previously could be imagined.   

 

And despite a significant increase in mental health awareness and prevention, mental health struggles are on the rise. And the numbers keep growing.   

 

Mental illness rates skyrocketed during the Covid years. There were many reasons for this, but chief among them was our inability to tolerate difficult circumstances. Folks in Ecuador would laugh at the struggles we had to face. “You mean you couldn’t leave your heated/ air-conditioned homes with running water? You mean you had food delivered to your house in minutes, and you still couldn’t manage? You mean you had endless entertainment on a smorgasbord of devices to occupy each child, and even so you all went stir-crazy?”   

 

Why did we struggle so mightily?   

 

The answer is: The further we fall into the trap of making our lives more comfortable and we relentlessly plan and pursue the avoidance of difficulty and discomfort, the more we struggle, especially when circumstances become tough.  

 

 TAKEAWAY  

The next time you tell yourself that you absolutely need to purchase a new X, Y, or Z, stop and ask yourself: “Do I really need this? If I had lived 50 years ago, would I have managed without it? If so, perhaps I can manage now, as well!”