Short essays written for the La Jolla Veteran's Hospital newsletter in La Jolla, California
There is a tendency in our society to point to outside events in and of themselves as the cause of our happiness or unhappiness. This is followed by the idea that individuals have limited power to control their emotional responses to such happenings. While it is true that physical assaults, depending on their gravity, could certainly harm us, psychological assaults are a different matter. Emotional responses, such as demanding expectations and overevaluations are often triggered by irrational beliefs specific to each individual. These irrational beliefs have been noted by the observations of clinical cognitive psychologists, such as Albert Ellis (1962, p.72)1 and others.
Especially in this day of instantaneous social media, I want to make clear that in no way am I condoning or excusing the proliferation of socially deviant egregious behaviors, such as bullying, harassment or sexting. However, understanding that we can develop control over our emotional reactions to such untoward events can aid us in walking a path leading to true happiness. Failure to do so leads to a cascading scenario of untoward events. A particularly nasty situation may in reality be quite unpleasant. However, a strong emotional reaction to it, which is also unpleasant, just adds to the problem.
Furthermore, the more strongly emotionally reactive we are to such events, the less effectively competent we are at coping with them or in solving unpleasant events that can be changed.2 Thus, though we are now undergoing another bitter event, it is one which we can do something about.
Two mental health cognitive strategies are aimed toward reducing unhappiness. One is realizing that others are going to follow their set of rules, not ours. What helps us understand the reality of this situation is seeing the frame of reference of others, even if we do not agree with their words and actions. That is to say, we see them as wrongdoing, but we still ‘move on.’ Another strategy is to understand that though many of life’s events may be quite disagreeable, few deeds and words are the “end of the world” or catastrophic.Once again, we can focus on ‘moving on.’
There is also a spiritual path pointing us to true happiness. As a recent N.Y. Times article pointed out: “It turns out that choosing to pursue four basic values of faith, family, community and work is the surest path to happiness, given that a certain percentage is not under our control in any way.”3 Such an idea is central to the truths of the world’s great spiritual traditions. However, to attain this will entail commitment and effort. One writer noted, while reviewing various religious traditions, that they “ demonstrated to me the depths of Judaism, Buddhism and Taoism [and] that I would find similar depths in Islam and Hinduism as well. I certainly have developed a far greater appreciation for Christianity, the tradition with which I’m most familiar.”4
With these ending words on working toward achieving true happiness I cannot help reflecting on the words of St. Paisios of Holy Mountain (2011, p. 174): “ the farther they [those trying to attain happiness] go from God, the less comfort and rest they can find in anything they do.”5
1 [Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus NJ: Lyle Stuart.]
2 [Morelli, G. (2006, March 25). Smart Parenting III: Developing Emotional Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting3.php.]
5 [Elder Paisios of Mount Athos. (2011). Spiritual Counsels, Vol.1, With Pain and Love for Contemporary Man. Thessaloniki, Greece: Holy Monastery, Evangelist John the Theologian.]
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V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.
Fr. Morelli is the Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion.
Fr. Morelli is a Senior Fellow at the Sophia Institute, an independent Orthodox Advanced Research Association and Philanthropic Foundation housed at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York City that serves as a gathering force for contemporary Orthodox scholars, theologians, spiritual teachers, and ethicists.
Fr. Morelli serves on the Executive Board of the San Diego Cognitive Behavior Therapy Consortium (SDCBTC)
Fr. Morelli serves as Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.
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