Is Happiness a Distortion?

Hi Dr. David Burns,

I am confused about the idea that depression and anxiety result from distorted thoughts. For example, you say that anxiety always results from the distortion called Fortune Telling—making unrealistic negative predictions that something terrible is about to happen.

If anxiety is results from telling yourself that something bad is about to happen, feeling alive and euphoric must result from predicting that you’ll have a good future—is that right? But isn’t that also a distortion?

Why should I believe that everything is going to be fine? Isn’t that equally ridiculous as believing something bad is going to happen?

Have a Nice Day!

Jason

Hi Jason,

Thank you for the thought-provoking question. I have edited your question to make it a bit more focused and understandable, and I hope that is okay. And here is the short answer if you don’t like to read too much of my babbling—it probably isn’t a good idea to tell yourself everything is going to fine, because it isn’t!

Bad things happen to all of us. For example, you’ll make mistakes, you’ll fail at some things, you’ll lose people and things you love, and you’ll experience illness and eventually, death. Good things will probably happen to us, too! For example, you seem to be interested in my work, and you ask good questions. That’s cool! I am honored by that, and consider myself fortunate.

But these events do not cause you to feel the way you do. Your thoughts create all of your feelings, positive and negative. That’s been known for at least 2,000 years, since the time of the Greek philosophers, like Epictetus, who said that humans are not disturbed by events, but rather by our views of them. In my opinion, the most important issue is whether your thoughts about these events are realistic or distorted.

In my two podcasts on my list of ten cognitive distortions, first published in Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, I emphasized that negative and positive distortions can both cause problems. Let’s focus on negative distortions first. The negative thoughts that trigger depression and anxiety will practically always have many of the distortions I’ve described, such as Jumping to Conclusions, All-or-Nothing Thinking, Overgeneralization, Should Statements, Self-Blame, Magnification and Minimization, Labeling, and more.

That’s why I’ve said that depression and anxiety are the world’s oldest cons—because you’re telling yourself things that simply aren’t true, but you don’t realize it. For example, depressed patients often feel worthless because they tell themselves that they are “losers” (All-or-Nothing Thinking). They may also feel hopeless because they tell themselves that they’ll be depressed forever and their problems will never be solved (Fortune-Telling).

As you so wisely pointed out, you see the exact same distortions in anxiety. For example, a woman with an intense fear of flying told herself, “Oh, I just know that the plane is going to run into turbulence and crash!” This is an example of Fortune-Telling–making an unrealistic prediction. It’s also an example of Magnification–blowing any real danger way out of proportion. And it’s an example of Emotional Reasoning as well–she’s reasoning from her feelings, telling herself that she feels frightened, so she must be in danger.

Cognitive therapists use many powerful techniques to help individuals struggling with depression and anxiety put the lie to the distorted thoughts that trigger their distress. In fact, I use more than 75 different techniques. And the very moment you stop believing the negative thoughts that trigger your depression and anxiety, you will immediately experience a profound improvement in your mood. However, this type of therapy is extremely sophisticated and requires a high degree of therapeutic skill and training. You can’t just tell someone to cheer, or feed them a line of positive baloney! People are not that stupid!

It would be wrong to conclude that all negative thoughts are distorted. In fact, many negative thoughts are valid, and not distorted. Realistic negative thoughts trigger healthy negative emotions, such as healthy sadness or healthy fear. For example, if you are walking in a dangerous part of town at night, you may be feeling frightened because you are telling yourself that you are in danger of being mugged or murdered. You don’t need to treat your fear with a pill or psychotherapy. You WANT the fear because it may keep you alive!

The same is true for the thoughts that trigger healthy sadness. For example, I recently lost my beloved cat, Obie, who was likely eaten by a predator in the middle of the night a couple months ago. I loved him tremendously, and he was the joy of my life. We were very close. In fact, I often described him as my best friend in the whole world, and one of my best teachers, too. Now I am grieving his loss, and will miss him for a long time! My grief is an expression of the intense love I felt for him, and does not need treatment. Nor do I need or want anyone to try to cheer me up. I’m fine with my sadness.

There are also ten positive distortions that are the mirror images of the ten negative distortions. For example, depressed patients are into the “nothing” of All-or-Nothing Thinking, but patients with mania are often into the “all” of All-or-Nothing Thinking when they tell themselves, “I am a winner! I’m the greatest!”

Politicians sometimes try to control people by combining negative and positive distortions. Hitler told the German people they were the superior race (the positive distortion) and that the Jews were inferior and to blame for Germany’s economic problems (the negative distortions). These positive distortions led, as we all know, to murder, sadism, and war. Some politicians today appear to be using similar strategies, and gaining a frightening amount of power.It is shocking and disturbing to me that so many people are gullible and cannot see through them!

Positive distortions not only trigger mania—which you can see in the crowds who were listening to Hitler’s speeches in a frenzy of manic excitement—but play a central role in narcissism, relationship conflicts, violence and addictions as well. Much of the world’s suffering results from negative distortions, but a great deal results from positive distortions as well.

Positive distortions are never the antidote to depression, in my opinion, and telling yourself nonsensical positive things that are not realistic will rarely or never be helpful to anyone, in my experience. But if you believe positive distortions, you will likely feel temporarily high, overly confident, and even euphoric.

Healthy joy results from positive thoughts that are realistic, just as healthy sadness results from negative thoughts that are realistic. I hope this helps to clarifies the difference between distorted and realistic thoughts.

For more information on how to overcome the thinking patterns that trigger depression and negative, I would guide you to any of my books, like The Feeling Good Handbook.

Thanks!

David

6 thoughts on “Is Happiness a Distortion?

    • Rajesh,

      Thank you for your excellent question and comment. Yes, I due think that much mental excitement results from positive cognitive distortions. One obvious example are patients who are experiencing a full blown manic attacks. They experience intense euphoria and tell themselves positive things that are highly distorted. For example, I once treated a young woman for depression, and it turned out she had Bipolar Manic-Depressive Illness, but had not yet experienced any of the manic phases. She experienced her first manic attack between sessions, and while walking past city hall, she saw a press conference involving the Mayor. She rushed to the podium and grabbed the microphone from the mayor, and started shouting that she had a new plan for world peace. The police arrested her, and she was involuntarily hospitalized. She was perplexed and could not understand why people weren’t excited by her sudden inspiration! later, when whe came down, she recognized how irrational she had become. But because she believed a positively distorted thought, she experienced extreme mental excitement.

      Motivational speakers nearly always use this device to inspire their audiences. They want them to believe that they are going to be “winners” (a positive label) who can accomplish anything if they simply believe in themselves and put in the effort to achieve their goals. And while there can be significant benefit from being motivated and working to achieve a goal, there may be a subtle distortion. For example, it simply is not true that you can accomplish all of your goals if you believe in yourself. For example, I cannot become a professional basketball star no matter how hard I try. In fact, I was one of the first ones cut when I tried out for the basketball team when i was a freshman in high school!

      Politicians use positive distortions, too. For example, Hitler inspired hundreds of thousands of Germans in his speeches, telling them they were the superior race. People like believing things like that, because it makes you feel superior and mentally excited, even though it isn’t true. Germans are wonderful, but they are not a “superior race.”

      Cult leaders and con artists also use positive distortions, as well as other forms of deception and outright lies, to control people. I have sometimes wondered if people, on some level, really ENJOY being conned, and buying into things that simply are not true. I have often said that if you speak the truth, you probably won’t attract many followers!

      My opinion only!

      David

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  1. Hi (uncle!) David,

    Very, very sorry to hear about the loss of your furry friend Obie, so awful for you both 😦

    My partner and I have always been animal lovers and have had rescue/stray cats and house rabbits that, like you, we have adopted.
    They’re our best friends too, love them so much…nearly lost one a few years ago, our cat Fluffy, she fell in our neighbour’s water butt,
    the lid wasn’t on properly (not sure if you use the same name in U.S.A…Big container that collects rain water from shed roof). Luckily i was home that day & heard her cries and found her, but her head was only just above the water, was a close call…very shaken up, but made me realise just how much i love her & would miss her terribly.
    There’s a book you might like called ‘Heart to Heart’ by Pea Horsley, an animal communicator, very moving & heart warming.

    I know exactly what you mean about politicians, here in the UK we have Brexit, we’re being given messages to try and make us think we’re better than others, there’s recently been an increase in racist attacks on foreigners.

    There’s constant anti Russian propaganda in the news. Very worrying.
    I always question if what we’re told is true, people look at me like I’m mad! They seem to maybe want an easy life by never questioning anything. Again, very worrying!

    Your books have helped me so much to enjoy my life more.. especially Acceptance Paradox, i use it nearly every day… usually end up laughing alot, “you’re such a loser”…”and that’s one of my better qualities!” Lol…Love it! 🙂
    My scores on the depression questionnaire are nearly always really low, in the ‘minimal/no depression’ figures after doing the Acceptance Paradox. I also find my procrastination almost disappears after this exercise & i’m far more interested in getting on with my hobbies etc

    Thanks so much, love your sense of humour too & kindness, which makes your books so enjoyable to read.

    Best wishes, Sally.

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    • Thank you for your kind comments, Sally! Yes, polarized, All-or-Nothing Thinking about others is very dangerous, and has led to violence throughout human history. Humans love to (wrongly) conclude that we are better than this or that group, or race, or religion, or country, and feel morally superior to label others in a pejorative way. The rhetoric of war seems to be on the upswing, so it is a worrisome time. The hatred and aggression of humans is exceeded only by our compulsion to deny what we are doing, or to justify it in the name of some “higher power” or belief. Because the weapons we now have are so potentially destructive, the cost of the aggression could be very high if anything suddenly develops in terms of Russia, Syria, North Korea, and so forth.

      Everyone wants to be “right.” I have often said that TRUTH is the biggest cause of suffering in the world today! That probably sounds pedantic, or foolish, but I believe it to be pretty on target.

      I’m babbling and so I will stop!

      But so glad my books and ideas and methods are proving helpful to you! Way to go! After all, we “losers” have to hang together!

      David

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