4. Our Stories, Myths and Fairy Tales

Our perceptions of what happiness and success look like are often shaped by myths, white lies and fairy tales. For many of us this begins within our families, directly from parents and guardians, grandparents, or aunts and uncles. They may also come from wonderful stories we were read or other interactions we had as children.

Many of the stories we were told as children were forms of fairy tale. Often, these stories ended with our heroes living, ‘happily ever after. Tales such as those of Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White or Peter Pan allowed us to escape into different worlds but also set an illusion of expected roles for males and females. All of them created a type of happiness and expectation without us really noticing. For boys this often meant fighting pirates, flying, being in control and exploring. Meanwhile, the girls would often clean things and pine away in a locked tower, awaiting rescue from a knight in shining armour.

Our interactions with family members are also a huge influence on expectations and roles that stay with us for the rest of our lives.

Almost all of us have a favourite story or fairy tale. I do and I bet you do too. I remember numerous fairy tales being read to me and my sister, when we were small, with princes and princesses going through trials and tribulations before ultimately living in the happily-ever-after universe. I’d bought into the world of princesses: I was a beautiful damsel and I would be riding off into the future on the white stallion of my rescuing prince who would look after me, keeping me safe, sound and happy.

Funny how life somehow doesn’t turn out this way. My late teens and early adult life was more along the lines of Princess Leia or Ripley from Alien, having to fight really hard to get what I wanted both professionally and personally, kissing lots of frogs and toads along the way, slaying evil monsters in my mind and not a white stallion or prince to be found. I was experiencing the trials and tribulations of young adult life by myself. I was unlearning everything I thought I knew about what constituted happiness. I was reshaping my expectations of myself along with my expectations of relationships and roles.

We all have been fed myths about happiness, contentment and success. Russ Harris explains that we have four Myths about Happiness which he explains beautifully in his book, The Happiness Trap (2008). Russ Harris explains how we are set up for our happiness traps both within community, family, cultural and societal expectations. These expectations are all based on our emotional needs and desires. I have paraphrased some of this below.

Myth 1: Happiness is the natural state for all humans.

No, it’s really not. Statistics show 1 in 10 adults will attempt suicide while 1 in 3 of us will suffer from a psychiatric disorder at some stage in our life. Non-psychiatric disorders such as loneliness, divorce, work stress, midlife crises, and relationship issues will affect us all at some point. Therefore, we are more likely than not to be experiencing some form of negative emotion at any given time. ‘True happiness’ is rare.

Myth 2: If You’re not Happy you’re Defective

Not true; but we have been trained by assumptions. Western culture in particular pushes this idea and it is reinforced by marketing and the Hollywood movie juggernaut.  We have been conditioned that mental suffering is abnormal and that this is a weakness or illness. REMEMBER: we all suffer painful thoughts and feelings.

Myth 3: To create a better life, we must get rid of negative feelings

Our western society tells us to eliminate negative feelings and accumulate positive ones. But there’s a catch. The things we value most in life will bring us a whole range of feelings both pleasant and unpleasant!

The Hollywood film Inside Out illustrates this conflict beautifully.

Myth 4: You should be able to control what you think and feel

We have a lot less control over our own thoughts and feelings than many us would like to admit or even believe. Our best CONTROL is over our ACTIONS. It is through us taking action that we create a rich, full and meaningful life.

So which myths apply to you?

Be honest: at least one applies if not more, and this is where I had to start to unravel my ideas of what is meant by happiness, success and contentment.

On my ongoing mindfulness and life journey I have had to learn to unlearn a host of emotional controls and myths. I had witnessed these, experienced them or had them demonstrated to me by very well-meaning adults or friends. I had to accept that those I blamed or held accountable for the way I was feeling were just repeating what they’d learnt or experienced as children, through school and family dynamics. The only way to change was to accept my limitations, work out the origins of some of my core beliefs and work through how they affected me.

The answer for me was journaling. If you can identify with the following sayings then it is time to review your perception of these common phrases:

‘Don’t cry’          ‘There’s nothing to be afraid of’      ‘Oh Dear…’         ‘Get over it’

‘Stop being a cry baby,’                ‘Do you think that’s good enough?’     ‘Dust yourself off’

’Is that really the best you can do?’     ‘Toughen up’      ‘You’re just being overly sensitive!’

‘Just get over it’               ‘Stop being such a  wimp!’            ‘You’re so naïve’

All these phrases teach us we should be able to switch our emotions on and off with ease. We are taught early to cover up our true emotional state and this is reflected in these common phrases and so many more, such as ‘have a stiff upper lip’ or ‘put on a brave face’.

Time to Have a Go!

Using a journal, consider the following questions:

1: Can you describe happiness for yourself? What does this happiness encompass? How do you pursue happiness in your life or lifestyle?

2. Are you aware of any factors or expectations that affect your happiness? How do they affect your happiness?

3. Can you identify any core emotional learning that you need to let go of? How does this core learning affect you? You might wish to consider your interactions with others, defence modes, falling back into repetitive patterns with key adults such as parents (parent/child roles)/partners/siblings etc. How could you let this learning go?

4: We all have favourite quotes and song lyrics. The following are a few of mine that have led to inspiration or ‘aha’ moments. I would like you to write about the following quotes and song lyrics. Consider how you feel after reading each one. Do you have other thoughts? Do you have other quotes that ‘sing’ to you? If so, write about these and why they chime for you.

“And I wanna see you
As you walk through the door
And time will make us
Some ways less and some ways more
And I wanna talk of nothing
As the world passes by
And I wanna think
But not to say

Let me face
The sound and fury
Let me face

Hurricanes by Dido

“I don’t think any of my family or friends would have predicted that I’d run my own business or be considered a successful entrepreneur. With my upbringing, there just wasn’t that kind of expectation of me growing up. But look a little deeper and I think that you can see all the ingredients and inspirations for what was to come.” – Cath Kidston from Coming up Roses: The Story of Growing a Business

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” – Nelson Mandela

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose.” – Arthur Conan Doyle