Is Happiness a Distortion?

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