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Chasing Satisfaction, Not Happiness, May Be a Healthier Goal for Family Caregivers

Therapist Jennifer Guttman offers 6 secrets to building resilience and strength

spinner image a caregiver pushes a wheelchair down a road that splits into two pathways: one lined with trees, the other with a rainbow at the end
Illustration: Valero Doval

“Are you happy?” Many of us hear some version of this question or phrase numerous times a day. There is an expectation in America that we should all be walking around feeling happy every minute of the day. It’s even written into the Declaration of Independence: We are granted unalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

But if you look at the numbers — according to an AARP mental health survey more than 60 percent of caregivers say that providing care for a loved one increases their levels of stress and anxiety — maintaining that cheery disposition is not always easy. No wonder many of us, especially caregivers, often feel as if we are falling short.  

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But what if someone told you that we were all searching for the wrong thing? What if a continual state of happiness is not attainable?   

Jennifer Guttman, M.D., a therapist and the author of the book, Beyond Happiness: The Six Secrets of Lifetime Satisfaction, contends that our continued focus on sustaining happiness can actually create a feeling of inadequacy.

“Happiness is an emotion,” explains Guttman. “It’s a feeling you get when you see a sunrise, receive a positive text or hold your new grandchild. The fact is, you can’t sustain an emotion; it’s more of a short-term dopamine hit. Feeling satisfied throughout the day or the feeling of satisfaction at the end of the day is a much more achievable and healthier goal.”

You can’t fail at an emotion

For those of us who spend time caring for others and often are unable to regularly prioritize our own emotions or desires first, this should come as a bit of a relief. Guttman’s book grew out of her personal experience as well as her practice as a therapist. “Thousands of clients have come to my office over the past 30 years, telling me they feel like they’re failing at being happy,” says Guttman. “And I tell them they can’t fail at an emotion.”

Guttman views happiness as being dependent upon factors in the outside world. “When we tell ourselves that positive feedback from the doctor, hitting a health milestone or a new relationship with a fellow caregiver will make us happy, we’re often setting ourselves up for disappointment. If we are hoping these kinds of things will bring happiness in an ongoing and sustainable way, we’re destined to be let down,” she says. “Like all emotions, happiness comes and goes. Yes, it feels great, but then it passes.”

Satisfaction is a better goal

According to Guttman, satisfaction is different. “Satisfaction is a feeling of contentment and peace,” she explains. “It’s how you feel when you accomplish something you set out to do, when you finish a book or a project, get through your inbox or feel cozy on the couch. Satisfaction with the right skill set can be achieved within yourself. And it can be long-lasting.”

Guttman came to understand some of the principles of satisfaction through her own personal experience. As a new mother, her son, Steven, was often sick. Countless doctors dismissed his coughing and eating issues as asthma or acid reflux, but she kept pushing and questioning. Her intuition told her that something was off. A decade later, her son was diagnosed with a rare condition — a double aortic arch that affects 1 in 10,000 babies. “One of his aortas was wrapped around his trachea and esophagus, slowly strangling him,” Guttman remembers. “I’ll never forget the doctor telling me that he was surprised my son hadn’t died.”

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Guttman’s experience as a mother and caregiver was difficult, crushing at times, but it also proved inspirational. “I learned to bounce back, persist through adversity and remain positive,” she says. “Those skills became the basis for strategies to offer something more sustainable beyond happiness and that was life satisfaction and resilience.”

If that life lesson wasn’t challenging enough, shortly after her son was stabilized, Guttman was diagnosed with life-threatening pulmonary embolisms, and following that, her father died. She embarked on a solo trip to Europe after the changes and trauma in her life. The goal: regain a sense of purpose, optimism and hope. During that trip she had her aha moment, recognizing the same pattern in herself that she had seen in her clients over the years. “We were all chasing something fleeting … happiness … instead of something that withstands the test of time: satisfaction,” remembers Guttman.

Ways to build satisfaction

Guttman set out to identify specific ways to build and create satisfaction from within. She calls them “the six secrets,” and they are especially relevant for caregivers when it comes to meeting expectations and solidifying resilience, purpose, strength and hope. They are:

  1. Avoiding assumptions: Guesses we make about what other people are going to say or do without any evidence.
  2. Reducing people-pleasing behaviors: Abandoning your own needs, desires and passions in service to someone else can create resentment. (This is nuanced in caregiving because that is often required with the role.)
  3. Facing fears: Facing down your fear is scary, but it can propel us forward out of our comfort zone.
  4. Making decisions: We often put off decisions, fearing that there are right or wrong choices and they are all “high stakes.” Decisions are just best guesses, and almost all decisions are reversible.
  5. Closing out tasks: Starting tasks is easy, but completing them is hard, because it’s less exciting and requires annoying attention to detail.
  6. Active self-reinforcement: We tend to delegate reinforcement for our efforts to an outside world that is fickle and unreliable. When we take back this control, we have the power to create a positive feedback loop between effort and reward.

Locate respite from within

Michelle Kukla, M.D., a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist, works with caregivers in her practice. She also counsels them to avoid the happiness trip: “Happiness is a transient feeling. Tied to an outcome and external factors, it can often leave the caregiver vulnerable to a daily emotional roller coaster ride, which is the last thing someone in this position needs.”

 Kukla works with care partners to help them become “outcome independent,” looking inward to find their own internal peace. “Nurturing and finding the ability to locate respite from within will allow the caregiver to weather the constant storms and challenges of caregiving,” she says.

Guttman recognizes that caregivers, especially, are directly impacted by their life circumstances. For this reason, she urges that caregivers think about implementing the six techniques in small, organic ways. “There is no ‘right or wrong’ way to do this, no timeline or race to the finish line,” she says. “The idea is to build a sense of satisfaction, one brick at a time, based on what works for your life. The size of the brick doesn’t matter at all.”

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Implementing the strategies

One of Guttman’s clients was caring full-time for a critically ill parent and at the end of each day, would routinely feel a sense of defeat. In an act of positive self-reinforcement (the sixth secret), she made a commitment to leave the house once a day and do something rejuvenating for herself. Once a week she brought home fresh flowers to bring color and joy into the house; another day she got a manicure. These small acts improved her feelings of autonomy and overall satisfaction because she had remembered to put herself back into the equation.  

Another common issue for caregivers, Guttman says, can be the hesitancy to delegate tasks, which is connected to secret number five of finishing tasks. “All caregivers can face the dilemma of thinking it’s just easier to do it yourself, but that can be a trap that leads to a downward spiral,” says Guttman. The husband of one of her clients was diagnosed with leukemia, and the client rushed in to take over the jobs he’d done prior to the diagnosis. She’d made the assumption he wouldn’t be able to do them.

“Making assumptions without having a conversation is one way we can get stuck in an emotional rut,” cautions Guttman. “And over time, taking on those extra tasks created a lot of resentment.” The couple had a conversation about how and where they could delegate some of the tasks to trusted family members and friends. This allowed the husband to feel like he was caring for his wife once more, with a different solution, and the caregiver found more free time in the day for herself. Both created new patterns in their lives as they adjusted to their new situation.   

And of course, Guttman reminds us that when it comes to the act of caregiving, one thing we can do to achieve more satisfaction is to practice mindfully saying no, and that includes delegating or editing requests. “There are many people-pleasing behaviors that come with the act of caregiving, and we all need to ensure we aren’t giving away too much of ourselves or falling into old patterns that drag down our personal sense of well-being,” advises Guttman. “Only you can decide what your limits are,” she says. 

Looking back over her experience of identifying six concrete steps to help others achieve satisfaction, Guttman has been able to witness the process help ease many caregivers’ anxiety. 

 You Can Get Satisfaction

Actionable tips from clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist Michelle Kukla, M.D.  

  1. Take mini mental health breaks using “cued relaxation.” For example, when you walk into the room of the care recipient, take a deep breath, or when the care recipient calls out with a need, you can repeat your favorite mantra, such as “I got this, I can do this, I am going to be okay.”
  2. When you are feeling stressed and looking for calm, practice this sequence: Pause, pivot and shift.
    • Pause: Take a moment.
    • Pivot: Change your perception and relationship with your emotions and thoughts by observing them with curiosity and detachment. This adjustment allows you to gain a clearer perspective on the situation, remaining present and calm without becoming overwhelmed.
    • Shift: Adjust your physiology by using a tool such as deep breathing.
  3. Music is a wonderful tool to provide a quick bump in mood. Identify a feel-good song or playlist that is easily accessible, such as on your cellphone.

“When people ask me if I’m happy, I respond, ‘Now, or all the time?’ Just like everyone else,” says Guttman, “I’m working toward living a satisfied life.”

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