Amy Bloch, MD — Rx: Unlearned Happiness
Amy Bloch, MD never expected that she would have anything but a very good life. She was convinced that she was on the path to happiness, with a top flight education, important work as a psychiatrist, and a growing family of eventually four children. When her second daughter Emily was born, however, her world turned upside down.
“I thought I’d never be happy again,” Dr. Bloch confesses. “I heard the neurosurgeon pronounce my newborn daughter Emily ‘brain damaged’ and my own brain went absolutely nuts in a way that nothing in my training as an adult and child psychiatrist prepared me to handle. What ultimately saved me from myself was not my expertise, but Emily’s. It’s her inherent wisdom that now informs my work with my patients.”
The effects of Emily’s imperfect brain are significant intellectual and physical disabilities. “I was devastated, and my husband and I grieved for quite awhile,” Dr. Bloch says. She was convinced that neither she nor her challenged daughter could achieve happiness.
“Was I ever wrong,” she laughs. “As it turns out, Emily is the happiest person I know. And it was this fact the led me to figure out how to get back in touch with my own happiness. It was there all along, just as Emily’s happiness is obviously simply wired right into who she is. But to access it I had to move a few things out of the way. It was from observing what Emily does that I learned how.”
“Emily is not a good learner. So there’s much she hasn’t learned, and will never learn. That’s not just her disability. It’s also the secret to her success. She’s never learned not to be happy.”
Over the years, as she’s observed her daughter, Dr. Bloch has realized this is exactly what happens to the rest of us. Everyone carries the innate capacity for happiness within. However our ability to access it gets blocked by some powerful mythologies about happiness. “We absorb these myths from our upbringing, our education, and our culture. When we recognize these stories we tell ourselves simply aren’t true, we are then able to move them if we choose, and reveal more clearly the happiness that is waiting for us.”
Emily’s abilities, though limited, are focused on making herself and others happy. Dr. Bloch’s website, Unlearned Happiness, shares anecdotes and inspiration about achieving happiness, using her observation of Emily’s actions and innate skills. She’s incorporating the themes she’s developed into her psychiatric practice, and they are really resonating with her patients.
Dr. Amy Bloch writes:
Emily’s the real intellectual in our family because she’s excited when she’s wrong. “Look Mom,” Emily gleefully says as she’s holding up evidence proving that she was wrong, “it’s not at all what I thought!”
She has failed to learn that being wrong is shameful. So she’s continually open to finding “Wow,” experiences everywhere. The world she sees is wondrous, illuminated, alive, surprising, mysterious, changing, because it’s fine with Emily to be wrong.
The world I used to see is based on my need to be right. So I didn’t see the wonder. I succeeded in learning that it shows weakness to be wrong. When someone doubts me, sometimes I’m willing to I say “ok, I was wrong,” but I say it as a confession, a signal of defeat.
When Emily says “I was wrong!” she says it as a joyful discovery, a sign of victory.
THE MYTHOLOGY OF HAPPINESS
Over the years, Dr. Bloch has studied what myths have kept her patients, and even her family and friends, from achieving the kind of happiness that comes naturally to Emily. They include:
1. I don’t deserve to be happy
2. Happiness will make me soft and unproductive; I’ll lose my edge.
3. Happiness requires living in the NOW (and I’m no good at mindfulness).
4. Finding happiness requires expert guidance, serious commitments of time and money, and lots of study and hard work.
5. Happiness can’t be trusted. The other shoe will always drop.
6. Real happiness results only from the right endeavors; only certain kinds of things count as happiness.
7. Happiness comes from not needing anyone or anything.
8. I can only experience happiness when I’ve met certain goals. I’ll be happy when I lose the weight, or when I get that promotion — and not until then.
THE REALITIES OF UNLEARNED HAPPINESS
In each instance above, Dr. Bloch challenges these negative perceptions with positive images. In the event of psychiatric illness like clinical depression, anxiety, or substance use disorder, her first priority is to address these medical conditions. Once this had been accomplished, however, she turns her considerable skills to inculcating happiness. As she’s put it on the introduction to the Unlearned Happiness website:
“Emily is not afraid to be happy. She isn’t scared that if she goes after happiness and lets it last, she’ll go soft, or get hurt. She cherishes happiness, makes it a priority and unequivocally enjoys, without guilt, activities that bring her joy. And Emily has no doubt that she deserves it. She considers being happy as natural as breathing, and uses her inborn instincts to guide her into happy making situations. She sees happiness in every day experiences. Being happy is not reserved for only big achievements (although those are fun) or involving special situations and being with select people.”
So what are the secrets of happiness?
Unloading learned beliefs.
Concentrating on unlearned happiness.
Emily has taught her that we are much more than our rational brains. In fact, we are limiting ourselves and. courting unhappiness when we see ourselves as just our brain.
Emily doesn’t have much brain power, yet she is a powerful person. Dr. Bloch thinks that’s because Emily has tapped into vast unlimited parts of herself that are also there in all of us. In her work with patients, Dr. Bloch’s new goals are to help people get curious and learn about these essential elements of themselves. She has developed a three-part system that introduces her patients to a new paradigm to replace the myths that keep one from achieving happiness.
1. Capacity to be big-hearted.
Successful people often attribute their success to being effective problem solvers, capable decision makers: to be big-brained. But how you make people feel about a decision you’ve made counts as much as the decision itself.
Dr. Bloch is helping patients drop down from brain to heart and get curious about what’s in there. She asks: what is the nature of your longings? What is your calling, your purpose? What does love feel like? Who would you do anything for, and what would you be doing if you followed your dreams? What would you be and feel if you expanded your love beyond your select few, to include more people, even yourself?
1. Capacity to believe.
Successful people are often skeptical about anything that the rational mind can’t explain. But human beings derive happiness from the act of simply believing. Believing in something (it doesn’t really matter what) is important to happiness. For instance, you may not be religious, but you may believe that there is something more or bigger than yourself, like our connection to each other, the promise of world peace, or the importance of helping animals or the environment. Dr. Bloch helps patients suspend disbelief and get curious about their beliefs — they are almost always there, if you look — as a way to tap into their unlearned happiness.
1. Capacity to trust.
Successful people are often prone to mistrust. People who have been hurt in corporate or professional life — and that’s most people — learn to maintain professional distance at all costs.
Yet from birth, human beings long for safe attachments. It’s human nature to want to form trustworthy attachments, and to want to have people in our lives that have our backs, whom we can count on.
Dr. Bloch helps patients get curious about their attitudes about attachment and dependency, and begin to build up more friendships, and relationships, based on mutual trust and joy.
BEING HAPPY DOESN’T HAVE TO BE SO HARD
Dr. Bloch’s own happiness shines through any conversation with her. “I’ve experienced what unlearned happiness is like in my own life, and I’ve learned that these principles and practices can be used by anyone. That’s why on my website I share the ways Emily’s happiness manifests itself and my ideas on how to achieve that kind of unlearned happiness. I am writing a book as well.”
“Early on, I thought it was other parents with special needs children who would need this most. I know first hand how the ability to access happiness is one of the things that can get lost in the aftermath of a special needs diagnosis. By now, though, I’ve learned from experience that just about anyone can benefit in similar ways from Emily’s unlearned happiness.”
Dr. Amy Bloch is charting new territory with her emphasis on unlearned happiness as it affects the well-being of her patients and the general public at large. Instead of dwelling on the misconception that happiness is a learned condition, we can tap into the deep well of happiness that lies within us. It may be hard to strip away the myths and get to the truth, but getting there is always worth it, for the whole new worldview wherein happiness is experienced each day.
“I learned to be happy from a girl who can’t tie her own shoes,” Dr. Bloch smiles. “I think that you can too!”
Follow Dr. Bloch on twitter https://twitter.com/happinessforum , on her website Unlearned Happiness (http://unlearnedhappiness.com ) and participate in her forum pages, and on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/unlearnedhappiness/ )