There is a pervasive view that we are entitled to be happy. Happiness is branded and forms part of our cultural milieu: adverts, social media posts and the sayings we pass on to those we care about, “I just want you to be happy”. It’s only in the past two hundred years that happiness became thought of as a right or obligation as historian Darrin McMahon writes . The reality of life, however, is there is pain, suffering and unhappiness; we all experience loss, rejection, sadness, suffering, these emotions are part of being human.
Striving for happiness can lead to an intolerance of difficult and painful emotions, which rather than being accepted become things to urgently fixed, gotten rid of or pushed away and cured. I often observe how a constant need to be happy becomes a source of anxiety and worry; the moment an unhappy thought or feeling occurs happiness is lost. For many individuals it is in relaxation time, once work is over or an assignment complete that negative and uncomfortable thoughts surface, sabotaging a piece of time that has been craved after. Studies from neuroscience have found that humans have a drive to seek more and more, so once a perceived level of happiness is achieved, there is a need for more of it. In my work, I notice the detrimental impact of constantly being in a driven by reward mode where happiness is a strived for but out of reach destination in the horizon.
What would life be like if we were only ever happy? Without feeling sorrow would we truly appreciate joy, without stress how can you really value calm? Happiness is about fully experiencing life and what it means to be human, we do not have one fixed emotional state but many.
To make space for negative emotions:
1. Practice observing how you are feeling. As you do so, try and maintain a position of curiosity. Simply noticing what you feel, without reaction, judgement or trying to fix, solve or get rid of what is there. For example, if you noticed tension and tightness in your shoulders, simply acknowledge that this is a feeling that you notice you are experiencing right now. Noticing, rather than judging helps us develop acceptance of our varied emotions and physical states.
2. Check-in with yourself regularly by asking yourself, “how am I right now?”. Our lives can be so busy, it’s like there’s a constant autopilot setting. This setting means that we get caught up in a mode of doing and often forget to check-in with ourselves. Regularly checking-in means that we are keeping an eye on our needs. After a busy morning, it may be that a little break is needed, or that you could do with stretching and moving about. It’s easy to ignore your needs if you aren’t paying attention to them.
3. Enhance your emotional awareness and literacy by learning how to name emotions. Rather than using words such as, “I am anxious”, see if there are words which express what you are feeling more accurately. For example, I find that “I am anxious” often means, “I feel frustrated”, “unsure”, “nervous”, “unsettled”. The shift in language provides more meaning to emotional states. A greater understanding of varied emotional states gives a better insight into difficult emotions and what can be done to address them.
4. Practice balancing out the negative with positives. As humans, we have a bias to focus on things that we feel have gone wrong, they serve as potential threats. Good things that happen often end up being taken for granted. To balance the negatives with positives, it helps to deliberately recall good things. They may be things that we could easily overlook, for example, the sun shining, a driver giving you right of way, a friendly moment shared with another person or doing something well at work or in your studies. Make a practice of writing down two things that went well each day.
5. Instead of seeking happiness, reflect on whether you are living a life that fits within your values. Values are guides that reflect what is meaningful to us. They serve as a compass towards the life we want to live. When we go against our values, we risk distress and unhappiness. To connect with your values you may ask yourself: What really matters to me in life and what gives me meaning? What do I care about? What are the things that give me energy?
6. Allow yourself you recognise the fleeting nature emotions. Thoughts and feelings are transient, though when you are stuck in the intensity of difficult emotions it may not feel that way. Visualising thoughts and feelings as clouds which have varied forms and intensities can be helpful. Like emotions clouds come and go, they do not exist as fixed entities.