Happiness Is Not A Destination But A Journey: An Interview with Dr. Ilene Strauss Cohen

Happiness: it’s something we all search for. How we go about doing so, however, makes all the difference, and it’s something Dr. Ilene Strauss Cohen, a psychotherapist and adjunct professor at Barry University, is particularly interested in. Her article The Pursuit of Happiness Actually a Source of Unhappiness?” discusses the effects our pursuit of happiness has on us. She believes that happiness is not simply a destination, but a journey, and that we can find it within ourselves more often than we might think. Passionate about helping people live satisfying lives, she works as a psychotherapist and believes that a strong sense of self leads to a happier life and ultimately happier us. Below, Dr. Cohen has shared some insight about her experience as a psychotherapist and how we can better pursue happiness and a stronger sense of self. Make sure to check out her full article and blog site for more information!

 

Dr. Cohen, thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer several questions for us! You are a passionate psychologist with your work featured in Psych Central, Tiny Buddha, and Psychology Today. Can you speak a bit about what your career as a psychotherapist entails?

My career as a psychotherapist entails a lot, because I do a lot of different things, all related to psychology but expressed in different ways. I write, teach, and see clients. I am the type of person that enjoys challenges and working towards something. I find learning to be a passion of mine and I can do that through always writing about new subjects, teaching, and from my clients. I write a lot about different topics like managing anxiety, achieving happiness, relationships, self-love, dealing with difficult people etc. I write about whatever inspires me that week, that I write the article, and find that inspiration is everywhere if you look for it. It may be from a book I read, from a client’s story, or something I am personally going through.

I hope that readers can learn a lot about themselves through what I write about, and then my biggest hope is that they apply what they learn in their own lives. It is one thing to understand how you can make your life better and it is another to actually apply those changes. From psychotherapy in general readers can learn about anything they want to learn about. There is a lot of useful information out there that will fit with what you are particularly going through. Personally, reading and educating myself, has been instrumental in living a fulfilling life. It helps you to gain new perspectives and insights that you might not have thought of on your own.

How did you decide to pursue the study of psychotherapy? What motivates you?

I always enjoyed the subject since I took an AP psychology course in high school. I loved learning about the mind, brain, and human behavior. What motivates me are ideas, research, and helping people to live their lives in more satisfying ways. Personally, I grew up as the designated caretaker in my family. I was the one that always wanted to help and be there for the people around me. So as I got older it was a natural choice for me. I still have an urge to be a caretaker and I deeply care for others, however how I go about helping people is different now that I have more knowledge about what can truly be useful to the people you love. So yes, a career in psychotherapy has been worth it for me. I couldn’t imagine my life without it. I enjoy reading, learning, and understanding people. I am a better person because all I have learned and applied in my own life. The rewards are that I get to live doing meaningful work. It benefits me, because I feel good about what I do, and it benefits my readers, clients and students. Oh and my family too, since they have a happier and more pleasant person to be around.

Have you faced any challenges during your career?

Yes, I have. It isn’t an easy career to make a decent living from. At least in the area I live in. There are not a lot of job opportunities. The challenge is you have to build something for yourself. And after years of school, it can seem difficult to go on the path of starting a business. Now it has worked out for me. However, it took a while to figure out what I wanted to do with my degree after all of that schooling. I found that I didn’t just have to do one thing, and I could use my degree for good in many areas of my life.  In my case, I knew what I wanted so I kept going for it even though it was difficult at times. I always remember that there isn’t a reward without hard work. Anything worth it in life isn’t easy to obtain. I also realized that my idea of what I could do with my degree changed. I looked into different ways I could use my degree that also appealed to me. I saw clients online, over the phone, and would rent an office hourly from a colleague’s office. I started to write, and then looked into local Universities to pick up some classes. I also wasn’t afraid to reach out to my network and see who could help me with finding me a job; that is actually how I got my adjunct position at Barry University.

I had colleagues that had a different experience than me. They did their internships and then were able to move anyplace in the country to find good jobs. It was different for me because I couldn’t move to another state. So that may only be the case in Miami that it is difficult to find a good job. I don’t want to worry readers that they picked a hard career. I think with anything there is always competition and no career is easy. However, it makes the process go smoothly if you enjoy what you do, have a long term goal in mind, and are open to different types of work.

In your article, you write that many of us are expecting our happiness to come from some outside source: “We’re practically waiting for magic fairy to be sprinkled over our heads.” Why do you think we often feel this way instead of empowering ourselves to find or define our own happiness? I know I’m personally guilty of this sometimes. 

Many of us are socialized to believe that happiness comes from an outside source. I don’t think we receive the message directly as much as we receive it indirectly. We get messages all of the time that we need to be rich, beautiful, materialistic, and have perfect circumstances to be happy. Even with negative situations we blame others, saying, “He/she was rude and ruined my day.”

Thanks for your honesty; I think we are all guilty of this. It takes time and effort to empower yourself, and take your happiness in your own hands. It is easy to get caught up in thinking that our outside world, and people in it need to be a certain way for us to be happy. Our families of origin are also a source that leads us to believe this. Growing up I was told you have to have a good secure career, a husband and kids to be happy. It was deeply ingrained in my culture that women especially need to be mothers to be happy. So we get those messages all of the time. No one really says, “Just live your life and find happiness from within.”

You speak about self-generated happiness and how we must change our mind set in order to shift our baseline for happiness. What advice can you give our readers for mentality change so as to pursue this type of happiness instead of a happiness reliant on other people, objects, or events?

There isn’t one easy answer to this. I think we have to take it each situation as it comes. However, one important aspect of any changes is self-awareness. If you can become aware of your triggers and really assess each situation as it comes you can better choose how you would like to respond. We can’t totally get rid of our natural reactions, however between stimulus and response we have a choice in how we want to handle every given situation. So, it is a matter of taking situations as they come and then choosing how you want to deal with them. Some things are unavoidably upsetting situations, for example someone dying that you love is an objectively horrible thing to happen. So one’s natural response would be to be sad, and that is okay. I wouldn’t want someone to repress his or her natural feelings. However, over time you have a choice on how you want to handle this bad situation and how you would like to live from there on out.

Can you elaborate a bit on hedonic adaptation and how we can incorporate an understanding of it to our personal pursuit of happiness?

Hedonic adaptation is the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. So when good things happen, we turn them very quickly into our baseline expectations, which leaves our void unfilled.

We are constantly told that this or that will make us happy, but when you find yourself constantly disappointed – as so many of us have – that is when people start to make changes. So much of what we do is designed to avoid pain or seek pleasure; but if we can drop all of that, we can learn how to be happy before anything happens. This type of happiness is self-generated, and it takes place by changing our perceptions. It is all in how we see things, and the meaning we bring to each situation. Most the time when I see clients they come in believing that their entire lives have to change for them to be happy. But soon we find out it is really their unhelpful perceptions, beliefs, and behaviors that get in the way of their happiness.

For those who want to learn more, do you have any additional resources or further readings?

For those that want to learn more I have a personal blog that I post an article weekly, http://doctorilene.com and a Facebook page that I post useful articles, quotes, and videos daily at https://www.facebook.com/doctorilene/. On my website I have a library of books I recommend, they are some of my favorite books, http://doctorilene.com/resources/. I also have a book coming out at the end of the summer, that offers a step-by-step process for building a stronger sense of self that ultimately leads to more internal happiness.

If you could give one piece of advice to Millennials and future generations, what would it be?

All of us have internal struggles we are dealing with, and every generation has their own unique struggles. Don’t let anyone put you in a box and tell you how you need to live your life. Always seek guidance from your voice within, your inner self. It is most important you live for self not in pursuit of what others expect from you.

 

Thank you Dr. Cohen for your time and insight! 

Your welcome! And great questions! Thank you.

  

Dr. Cohen can be reached at info@doctorilene.com. She is easy to reach and open to questions!

18 Comments

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  1. This is the best article I have read from this interviewer. Great insight from Dr. Cohen. An excellent piece of article!!!

  2. A vary nice and refreshing article. I feel that with depression on the rise in our country and with younger generations, there must be some social trend and pressure that Dr. Cohen mentioned. I love that she brought up educating one’s self and I believe that is a key to managing many struggles in life.
    Different social cultures deal with emotions differently and I wonder how this effects individual happiness? As well as where the source of happiness stems from?
    I agree that we all have a choice in what makes us happy and we can figure out where to go, I do wonder if this is a line of privilege that comes with obtaining personal happiness?
    I’m curious as well, since she is someone who works with clients, what her clientele are like and how does she help people with different cultures or different levels of social stress?

  3. It was a very insightful article. I, like most people , struggle with attaining happiness. We ignore the bliss of the present for some utopian future. Our hearts are filled with indescribable happiness when we achieve our goals but if we fail, disappointment shatters our soul.

    “So much of what we do is designed to avoid pain or seek pleasure; but if we can drop all of that, we can learn how to be happy before anything happens.”- I would really like to understand how to put this statement to practise.

  4. “Passionate about helping people live satisfying lives, she works as a psychotherapist and believes that a strong sense of self leads to a happier life and ultimately happier us.” When I first read that it occurred to me how true it rang. The article talks about knowing ourselves in terms of what our triggers for certain reactions are so that we may improve them with experience and modifying our own perspectives to see what we do have in our reach. However, for me that statement rings true because in knowing myself, I am able to not only identify what I truly desire, but also what I can do that is within my power to attain those desires. That for me is happiness: having the power to achieve my desires and then actually being able to go through with it.

    The article itself was a pleasurable read that puts into perspective some of the harder aspects to achieving our dreams via Cohen’s personal experience in pursuing her dream career. At the same time, it reminds us that happiness is truly within grasp every moment in our lives, we just have to develop the capability to see it and thus feel it. There were some minimal grammatical errors here and there, but they could be fixed easily with a bit more proofreading. It would be interesting though to see a more in-depth interview or article about possible obstacles to changing perspectives and identifying triggers as well as possible solutions to both.

  5. This is comforting to read, thank you so much! I do agree that happiness can be found from within, and it’s just really sad that sometimes we (me inclusive) get so caught up with our past/present and material items that we forget that we actually already have what we want.

  6. Love, love, love this article!

    Dr. Cohen’s approach to happiness is very similar to what I’ve studied of Buddhism and of the Law of Attraction.

    It’s great that you wrote this article. In this context, the concepts are presented in a way that may be less “hoky” and thus will resonate with more people.

  7. I would definitely love for Dr. Ilene Strauss Cohn to be my psychotherapist, really. Her motives are wonderful, and I really love how she says she learns from her clients as well. I’ve met too many people in the mental health field who just think they’re clients are crazy and don’t listen to a word they say or really take it into account. I’m really going to remember her advice, because it does ring true, and I intend to live my life by some of these. Society really does put a big emphasis on money and material goods to bring you happiness – and while I’m very self aware emotionally to my triggers, I’m afraid i do fall victim to that materialistic part. I might have to work on that..

  8. This article sheds some needed light on today’s dilemma. Like Dr. Cohen said, so many people today are convinced they need to live a ‘socially acceptable life’: get a husband, have kids. You do not need to be a mother to be happy, or more importantly, you do not need to listen to others to find your own path to happiness. So many people and young girls live under this notion, it’s terrible to see.

    Otherwise, I really liked the interview content. Constructing your own path is something millenials need to hear about. Many of us need to know that there are people who succeed and that diplomas do hold the value you make out of it. For someone like me who fears the job searching progress after college, Dr. Cohen’s self-constructed path to success is relieving to hear about and gives me confidence!

    About the article itself. Something I always recommend is a cincher, something that wraps up the interview content or connects it to modern times or something. It’s not essential but sometimes it’s cool to have for discussion. I really liked the questions, they were the right mix of short and to the point versus in depth with lots of formation. Great to read!

  9. Happiness is an extremely complex topic to talk about because of how much subjectivity there is to it. I love how Dr. Cohen gives advice on how to obtain the sort of happiness that is more beneficial to our mental state than just for instant gratification. I also appreciate that Dr. Cohen says it’s okay to be sad when an event calls for it. None of us can ALWAYS be happy, and sadness is not something to shy away from. Sometimes it is necessary to be sad, while other times happiness can be found in other things. I like how the article dispelled the idea that happiness just happens to an individual–it takes work to really drag it up from within our beliefs and practices. This was a great article with some great advice.

  10. When an article gets you to think, really think and reflect on your own life and attitudes, you know it’s a good one. Happiness, to me, has always been tricky to define. Mainly because the definitions you get are very generalized and impersonal. When in reality, happiness is the complete opposite, it’s personal and individual, and it shouldn’t rely on anyone or anything else, just like this article brilliantly narrates. It cannot and will not be easy to change your perception on happiness when it has been so deeply wired into our brains but it’s pieces of writing like this one that allow for real thought on our lives and ourselves. It’s a piece I will honestly read over and over again until I can understand it to the degree that it needs to be understood. Hey, it’s already bookmarked. Thank you for this article, and amazing job on the interview, it came across as real and honest which is always the best.

  11. For the past few years I have been thinking about this topic fairly often. I actually remember coming across this quote: ‘Happiness is a journey, not a destination.” It made me rethink many of my beliefs at the time.
    I’d like to emphasise the importance of this profession in today’s world and I’m more than happy to say that I have noticed more and more active professionals in this field. Although finding a job isn’t the easiest task with this degree, I think its worth it since more and more people nowadays need some sort of guidance and psychotherapists (especially those of younger generations) are much needed.
    I did’t like the lenght of answers, I prefer paragraphs that are short and concise. However, adding all those links added a really nice touch.
    I liked that she pointed out that we shouldn’t rely on outside sources for our happiness. This is very important and I can’t stress that enough.
    I also liked a small little advoce given at the end, it makes the whole article seem so friendly.

  12. This was great, definitely something that needs to be brought to everyone’s attention. I know when I first learned about this and actually put it into practice, my life became so much better and I was so much happier and felt more fulfilled and content. I also like that you focused on some of Dr. Cohen’s background before diving into the main topic, it’s cool to know a bit about her career. The interview questions you wrote were great and provided insightful responses! I’d love to know more about how to switch your thinking into happiness as a journey rather than a pursuit and the benefits of it. I’m also always curious about the different sides of things, because I think sometimes it’s good to think of happiness as a pursuit. Then if you are in an unhappy situation, you will do something to change it. But, as I said earlier, I also know from personal experience that seeing happiness as a journey can make such a great positive difference in our lives.

  13. I think we do tend to think of unhappiness as being caused by external things. One of the things that I realized recently was that a group is not responsible for an individual’s happiness- and that my family or school was not responsible for making me feel good. My happiness was my own responsibility.

  14. Happiness as a state of mind, that can be achieved by oneself is a construct I agree with whole heartedly. Human kind aims for Happiness, and ideally it would be an everlasting state of mind. The fact that the human brain is not made for everlasting happiness kind of throws a stick right into that.

    I love how Dr. Cohen offered a personal insight in her own life and how she came to be where she is now. There is a very intimate touch in her words that makes it easy to relate to the topic. Personally I love this article, due to the fact that I had to come to terms with my own life and what I needed to be happy. And I love how everything I thought about, was mentioned in here.

  15. Great article, nice and in depth answers and the questions were brilliant! I have to agree, I often think that happiness is generated from the internal, we are responsible for our own happiness.

  16. Do you find being a caretaker can be draining sometimes? I’ve seen some studies mention that caretakers tend to be more emotionally drained.
    I think it is hard not to base our happiness on something. For example, I find happiness in feeling accomplished in my career. I do research with my professor and seeing my name on a paper (even just in acknowledgments) is fulfilling to me as I know this will help me with my long term career goals. I do understand what you mean about not basing your happiness on something like that, but I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to strive to work harder for career fulfillment, among other things.

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