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Finding Happiness and Meaning Using Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)

» Mental Health Library » Treatment Approaches » Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy » Featured Article

By: Walter J. Matweychuk, PhD

Walter J. Matweychuk, PhD

Many people if they are honest, will tell you that they are not as happy and satisfied with their lives as they would like to be. At an earlier time in my life, I counted myself among the ranks of the dissatisfied. Through hard work, I no longer am disappointed with my life. I solved my dilemma by using REBT philosophy to guide my way to living a rewarding and meaningful life. My goal is to help you to improve your life satisfaction and the meaning you derive from the one life you are ever likely to have to enjoy. The question is, how do you go about doing this?

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) argues that to enjoy one’s life, you need to do two general things and many more specific things. In general, you need to learn the art of not disturbing yourself when life is rough, and you encounter adversity. Secondly, you need to have what Dr. Albert Ellis called a vitally absorbing interest.

I have previously written a great deal about how to use REBT not to disturb yourself. I will briefly summarize this here. To not trouble yourself, you need to hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes towards yourself, others, and life itself. Start with you. You may want to be thinner, more affluent, smarter, etc. but start with accepting yourself unconditionally. The first step towards a happy and meaningful life is learning to accept yourself warts and all. Self-acceptance does not mean that you do not have wishes and wants and overlook your shortcomings. If you desire to lose weight, then go and eat healthily and move your body every day. Keep your want but realize losing weight won’t make you a better person. Losing weight will make you lighter and possibly healthier but not a better person. You will remain the born mistake maker you were when you weighed one hundred pounds more than you do today. It is fine to think, “I want to lose weight and enjoy better health.” However, avoid thinking “I absolutely must lose weight and enjoy better health to feel good about me as a person” because you will soon jump to “and until I do lose weight and enjoy better health I will consider myself less worthwhile than all other people who presently enjoy the health I want to have.”

To not disturb yourself, you will also need to hold flexible and non-extreme attitudes towards two other foci, namely others and life itself. In many instances in life, other people will not do what we want, and we will disturb ourselves if we demand that they do so. Stoic philosophers taught over two thousand years ago to either educate people or bear them. Likewise, REBT teaches to tolerate people and attempt to have a positive impact on them if this is possible. There will be times, however when we will be unable to influence people to do things in a way we find agreeable. It is because of this that you need to be able NOT to disturb yourself about this state of affairs. Likewise, with life, it will often deviate from how we ideally would like it to be. Many of my patients trouble themselves when they demand that life give them a break, allow them to accomplish their goals quickly and with a smaller sacrifice, and that life be fair. Following the spirit of REBT philosophy, I teach them that the universe is indifferent to us, and we will be better able to avoid disturbing ourselves if we accept this fact and work to change what we can change within the limits of the human condition.

Doing what I prescribe will keep you from becoming miserable and disturbed, but it will not help you to have happiness and derive life satisfaction and personal meaning. To achieve these things, Dr. Albert Ellis taught one needs to commit to creative pursuits. He argued that nearly all of us would lead healthier and happier lives if we get involved in vitally absorbing interests, and create and maintain at least one significant human involvement. According to Ellis, creative pursuits and at least one meaningful human relationship are useful ways of structuring our lives and filling it with meaning. Examples of creative pursuits can be building a business, political activism, personal hobbies, exercise and athletic competition, learning and education, creating art and volunteering your time to others. Your professional career maybe your creative pursuit or it may not be. A job can start as a creative pursuit but over time stop being as vitally absorbing as it once was. Under these conditions, you may have to accept that you have options and can consider changing jobs and careers, but there will not be an infinite number of possibilities. Your career options become limited as time goes on and here you will need to use REBT to accept this reality and then find some other vitally absorbing interest to add to your pleasure and meaning. This application of acceptance may not be easy for you to achieve, but it is possible. You can accept that as life goes on some options disappear and you still can have some degree of happiness and not make yourself depressed on an ongoing basis about the nature of life.

For Ellis, his vitally absorbing interest was disseminating REBT and helping people learn how to use this philosophy to enrich their lives. For me, my creative pursuit is also introducing REBT to patients and teaching it to my students. It is for this reason I write these posts, and I am attempting to create a robust website where people can learn REBT from wherever they are in the world. A past vitally absorbing interest of mine was running in marathons as I completed the New York City Marathon for thirteen consecutive years. My primary human involvement is enjoying my marriage with my wife, Pam. I have been married now for 25 years and find this relationship, one that enriches my life and adds meaning to it. My wife and I share some creative pursuits which include travel, reading and self-education, and enjoying fine dining. We often say to each other when reading on the weekends, “There are so many books to read there is not enough time to get to all of them.”

People will often ask how do you discover what activity or activities will be the ones that make your life fulfilling? The answer is to experiment with different activities until you find one or a few that absorbs you creatively and gives your life meaning. I should point out that what you experiment with may be limited by the constraints of reality. You may want to experiment with learning to fly an airplane, but that may be unrealistic given your income and your other obligations. If what you would like to experiment doing is genuinely unrealistic, then use REBT to accept this and find something that you can afford and fits into your life. Nowhere is it written you should be able to experiment with any activity you may find exciting or rewarding to do.

With these considerations in mind, I think people sometimes stop themselves from experimenting with various activities that they really could try because of self-defeating attitudes towards discomfort and uncertainty. If you believe writing your memoirs will give your life meaning but also think you need a guarantee that this will work you will not experiment and set aside time on the weekends to write. If you hold self-defeating attitudes, you will avoid the discomfort of first starting and then sticking with a task that might lead to meaning until you do it, get good at it, master it, and see if it adds anything to your life. If you think running a marathon will lead to pleasure and a sense of accomplishment but think it is too hard to run every day and slowly extend the distance you run, then you will not experiment. If you believe seeing different parts of the world will enrich your life, but you are too lazy to research a trip to a faraway place, then you had better change your attitudes and beliefs towards the work involved in planning the trip. REBT encourages you to philosophically accept that you will have to tolerate some discomfort and take some degree of risk to discover what will make your life more satisfying. REBT also encourages you to accept that there is no such thing as perfect happiness and bliss or a path that is ideal in every way. All of our decisions will have advantages and disadvantages, and if you insist on a road in life that has no downside, you will never find a path that is satisfying to travel. If you wait for happiness to strike, you may very well wait for a very long time. Instead, pursue goals that interest you and which may be uncomfortable in the short run. Pursue these goals with sensible ideas in your head. Life takes time, and therefore, you had better not demand that you find what you are looking for quickly or easily. Often life takes considerably more time than we would like and we give up too soon. Don’t do this and use REBT to help you put in the time and effort achievements require.

Nevertheless, keep experimenting, keep looking for new things to try, new people to date, relate to, and possibly love. Do this over the entire course of your lifetime. See that the discomfort you experience may very well be the price you pay for the inflow of happiness, satisfaction, and personal meaning you derive as you move towards your creative and personally meaningful long term goals and relationships.

Bottom-Line: First work on using REBT to avoid disturbing yourself when you do not get what you want from yourself, others, and life. Cultivate unconditional self, other and life acceptance. Second, develop vitally absorbing creative pursuits through experimentation and pursue at least one meaningful human involvement. Accept the discomfort and risk involved with pursuing any new goal. Achievements take time, so do not demand quick results. Accept the effort and time which is required and keep at making your life a happier and meaningful experience.

About the Author...

I am a clinical psychologist with 29 years of experience. I am a practitioner, author, and professor.

Click here to contact or learn more about Dr. Walter J. Matweychuk

Last Update: 9/3/2019

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