Imagine that today is Happiness Day. For the next 24 hours, you get to enjoy the day to the best of your ability. What would you do?’
I asked some of my friends and family this same question. If you’re like many of the people I polled, you would probably plan to spend the day with family, indulge in a pleasurable activity, or aim to carve out a significant chunk of time with one of your favorite hobbies. But not everyone approaches happiness the same way.
As a matter of fact, some people don’t approach happiness at all. My husband, for example, told me he would spend the day “not doing anything at all that would make him unhappy.” His response shocked me. I was expecting him to say something more along the lines of “Bingeing on Season 3 of House of Cards”. But more than that, I was surprised by his approach, or lack thereof, toward happiness. He wasn’t planning to seek or pursue happiness at all; he was planning to spend the day avoiding unhappiness.
The truth of the matter is that many of us experience a similar retreat from negative emotions, and it may be interfering with our experience of happiness.
There are lots of really good reasons why nobody likes negative emotions. For one, they’re just not fun. Most of the time, they’re barely tolerable. They can make us feel anxious, embarrassed, unworthy, and many other decidedly “unhappy” feelings.
For another, many of us are raised to think of negative emotions as “bad” or off-limits. We’ve learned to hide them, brush them aside, and basically avoid them for as long as possible. Funny thing about this strategy is that it only makes things worse. The more we try to suppress unpleasant thoughts and feelings, the more urgently and frequently they show up. What’s more, research has shown time and again that suppressing emotions not only makes them stronger; it reduces well-being and it can even cause psychopathology. Unfortunately, ruminating, or compulsively thinking about negative emotions, is just as toxic. Allowing negative thoughts and emotions to consume us can lead to depression, impaired thinking, poor problem-solving, and strained social relationships. In short, another really bad happiness strategy.
Like it or not, negative emotions are very much a part of our lives. Perhaps more to the point, negative emotions are very much a part of our happiness. The key is learning to value them in such a way that they can be successfully integrated into daily life, so that even on a day spent in pursuit of happiness, it would be okay to occasionally feel sad, lonely, or bored and that the experience of those emotions would not ruin the whole day.
Getting to this point takes practice, determination and, above all, a willingness to explore the full range of emotional experience. This willingness to experience all emotions, including the negative ones, requires a different mindset than what many of us are used to. Even those of us who are skilled at managing our negative emotions tend to look at them as a means to an end. A willingness to experience emotions, however, requires that we allow ourselves to literally feel emotions, just as we would reach out to touch a shiny new car, or in the case of negative emotions, coarse sandpaper. The purpose is not to feel happy or sad, but to open ourselves up to the experience, whether it be smooth or rough, so that we can move forward, toward the people and pursuits that bring us real happiness.
It may seem counterintuitive, but when in pursuit of happiness, try not to spend your time avoiding the things that make you feel bad. Go ahead and fully explore happiness by doing something that is meaningful to you, something that makes you laugh, spend quality time with the people you love, challenge yourself at something you’re really good at, and/or share your time with someone who really needs you. And if unhappiness shows up on your doorstep, don’t run away. Be willing to let it in and bend your ear for a minute or two. Listen to it, take some notes even, thank it for its time, and then politely excuse yourself from the conversation. After all, you’ve got some quality time planned with your spouse, and House of Cards is about to begin…
Header image: Jumping for joy. Photo by Cat. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons