The Upside of Feeling Down: Why It’s Okay Not to Feel Happy All the Time

And how to thrive even when things aren’t going your way.

PeopleImages/Getty Images
PeopleImages/Getty Images

Spend a few minutes clicking around the Internet, and you’ll likely stumble on more than a few articles along the lines of “7 Tricks to Feel Happier Instantly” or “How to Bring More Positivity Into Your Life.” (As an editor, I’ve had a hand in a few of those stories!)

Chances are, your Instagram and Facebook feeds are probably even sunnier. From beaming couples to festive groups of friends toasting over drinks, happiness is the name of the social media game. (Facebook has even adjusted its algorithm to promote positive posts.)

But real life, of course, isn’t always peachy keen. It’s full of disappointments and disasters, both small and large, from layoffs to loved ones falling ill. But in an age when people put only their most perfect moments on display, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one — ever — who is going through a tough time.

When people put only their most perfect moments on display, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one — ever — who is going through a tough time.

Which is exactly how I’ve felt lately. I know my life is full of good things—I have wonderful friends, wonderful parents, and I love what I do. But, as someone who tends to overthink things, I’ve been feeling a little let down about some things in my life that aren’t working out as well as I’d hoped—like a recent breakup, uncertainty about my career path, and not exactly loving where I live.

But there’s good news for me, and for anyone else who’s going through a rough path: Tough times are just as important for a full, happy life as positive experiences.

“It would be irrational to think we can rid our lives of all negative experiences,” explains Michelle Gielan, a positive psychology researcher and author of Broadcasting Happiness. “It’s less about what happens, and more about what you do about it.”

Read on for more from Gielan, and other positive psychology experts, about the upside of feeling down, and how we can all learn to handle it better.

The Purpose of Negativity

Despite what countless articles, books, and social media suggest, “human beings are not designed to feel happy all the time,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside and author of The How of Happiness. Negative emotions serve a purpose, both evolutionarily and emotionally.

Think of emotions such as sadness, stress and anxiety as red flags that your mind wants you to pay attention to, Gielan explains. If you’re angry, for example, it likely means there’s an injustice that you want to correct. If you’re anxious, there may be a threat you need to attend to. And if you’re sad, it means you care about a situation so deeply that it’s causing you distress. Negative feelings can also serve as the catalyst you need to transition to a better place in your life — a new job or a different relationship, for example. 

“Human beings are not designed to feel happy all the time.”

And most importantly: Don’t beat yourself up for feeling down. Trying to repress negative moods in favor of feeling upbeat can actually make you feel worse, according to recent research. In fact, people who accept their emotions — both dark and light — without judgment are better able to cope with stress and feel better in the long run.

Also important to bear in mind: “the opposite of happiness isn’t sadness — it’s apathy,” Gielan explains. In other words, being sad means you still care. But when you stop caring altogether, that marks a more serious situation. (If you’re feeling completely hopeless, talk to a trusted loved one or seek professional help.)

Finally, happiness isn’t a static state of mind. In fact, science suggests that we feel happier as we move toward your goals—on the journey toward happiness—than when we actually achieve those accomplishments. In other words: “Happiness is the joy we feel as we grow toward our potential,” Gielan says.

“Happiness is the joy we feel as we grow toward our potential.”

Living in the Grey

When I’m feeling a little down, it’s easy for me to feel like I’m going to feel like this—forever. The thought of ever being completely happy again is elusive, and I convince myself this is how I’ll always be—even though my past experiences prove this to be false.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who feels this way. “As Americans, we have a tendency to be obsessed with extremes: We’re either happy or sad, dieting or not dieting, rich or poor,” says Cheri Augustine Flake, LCSW, a therapist in Atlanta.

Life, however, isn’t always so black-and-white. Focusing on either end of the spectrum ignores the in-between part in the middle, or the grey area, as Flake calls it. “The grey area is actually an exciting, even fun place to be, and it signals you’re changing and transitioning, even if things haven’t fallen perfectly into place.”

“The grey area is actually an exciting, even fun place to be.”

After all, the happiest people in the world wouldn’t feel that way if they didn’t also know what it was like to feel blue. “We grow and we become who we’re supposed to be,” says Flake. “No one says it’s easy. But they do say, ‘I went through this tough thing and I got better because of it.’”

In other words, we get so wrapped in how things things should go down that we don’t see the opportunity in less-than-ideal situations. “The strange thing about the worst things that happen to us is that they can eventually become the best things that could happen to us,” Flake notes.

3 Tips to Get Through the Tough Times

This isn’t to say that negative situations, whether it’s the loss of a loved one or a breakup, aren’t difficult. But there are some strategies to help you navigate the rough waters of life.

(1) Be in the present moment.
It may sound trite, but try to reel yourself back to the present—especially if your thoughts have the tendency to get away from you, like mine do. “Even if you’re weeping and crying, ask yourself: Can I just be with this?” Flake says. And remind yourself that you are safe and sound: “If you’re sitting in your car, for example, feel the back of your leg touching the seat. Feel your bracelet on your arm. Feel the cool air conditioning blowing on you,” she suggests. “This helps remind your brain in a language it understands in sensations that everything is OK — that you can find some peace, no matter what else is going on.”

(2) Distract yourself.
Not with vices like drugs or alcohol, but rather, things that allow you to escape from the negative situation and feel fully absorbed in something else, Lyubomirsky says—like seeing a movie, working on a creative hobby, or going to your favorite restaurant. This can help us change our thinking patterns—and stop us from ruminating and imagining the worse, which is a trait that women, unfortunately, tend to display more than men, Gielan notes (aha!).

(3) Take a “now step.”
Figure out a small, meaningful action you can take right now to work toward a better future—what Gielan calls a “now step.” Say, for example, you need a new car but you can’t afford it. Consider what you can you do at this moment—such getting a small coffee instead of a grande mocha. That won’t solve all your money problems, but a small step like that allows your brain to register a small ‘win,’ moving you forward from the problem to what you can do about it right now,” Gielan explains.

My Happiness Toolkit

In the midst of a personal rough patch, I try to distract myself (in healthy ways), and do more of the things I know help me feel better, such as:

  • Cooking a delicious, healthy recipe I find on Pinterest (like this arugula pesto on spaghetti squash!)
  • Reading a good novel on my Kindle
  • WRITING — working on articles is an incredibly helpful distraction for me!
  • Staying off a social media. A tough task, but so beneficial when I’m feeling down.
  • Listening to positive podcasts. I am currently into NPR’s “How I Built This,” Oprah’s “SuperSoul Conversations,” and Gary Vaynerchuk’s “The Gary Vee Show” (especially when I need a good kick in the butt!)
  • Going to one of my fave workout classes: hot yoga, bootcamp, or Pilates
  • Taking a long walk outdoors
  • Chatting with my mom or a good friend on the phone

I know these small steps aren’t going to magically turn around my entire life; but they can make a big difference in my daily mood, helping me move forward toward a more positive future.

And moving forward, step by step, is what happiness is all about.

Find me on Twitter @lockevictoria or Instagram @lockehugheswrites. Interested in health coaching? Learn more about my services here.

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