The Problem With Trying to Be Happy All the Time

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The business of trying to feel better emotionally, whether you're doing it yourself or helping someone else to do it, can be frustrating sometimes because of the skewed conceptions of emotional health that are propagated in popular culture.

Most everyone can agree that being happy is preferable to being unhappy, and that if negative emotions are your primary experience and impair your ability to function in your life, then your emotional health needs to be tended to.

But the idea of emotional balance isn't well-represented. It’s more of an all-or-nothing proposition: unhappy moments are weeds in the garden, and so long as any remain, you have more pulling to do.

Case in point: I recently came across an article entitled "The Most Important Skill in Life (It's Not What You Think)" (thankfully, not written by a mental health professional). It turns out that it's "mastering how to get happy and stay happy." The author said that "when you have mastered your emotions, you can pick and choose how you feel at any given point in time, no matter what else is happening around you. You can choose to be happy, even when 'Rome is burning' behind you."

Yikes. You mean, like Nero?

According to the article, when an event outside your control happens, rather than experiencing an emotion—being happy with a promotion at work, or mad about being "thrown under the bus" by someone—you can just choose an emotion and manifest it by changing your thoughts. By thinking thoughts of gratitude especially, you can become master of your emotions and increasingly move toward a permanent state of happiness.

Why trying to be happy all the time works against you

I think articles like these are dangerous because, on one hand, they contain enough truth to make them seem plausible (yes, changing your thoughts can affect your mood). But their appeal derives from the promise of a reward (permanent happiness) that, while enticing, reinforces a fundamental belief that leads us to suffer. Namely, that not only are negative emotions unnecessary and undesirable, but they can just be made to vanish. It reminds me a bit of this classic Bob Newhart skit. 

If you believe that your negative emotions are making you unhappy, then you’d understandably want to eradicate them. But this is getting it backward: negative emotions are the product of your unhappiness, not the source of it. When you cast your negative emotions as an antagonist, you become blind to their merits.

For one thing, they can highlight unmet needs in the same way that a positive feeling signals a need satisfied. As bad as it may feel, an unpleasant emotion can be a road map to a problem area (and therefore, a potential source of satisfaction) that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

It's similar to how a flat tire alerts you to the presence of a nail. Just re-inflating the tire is a temporary fix at best. Our negative emotions often point to parts of ourselves that aren't free yet. (Here you can read more about working with your negative feelings.)

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Also, the full range of human emotions is a naturally-occurring biochemical phenomenon that occurs in your mind and body. If you're having feelings of various types, it means that your mind and body are able to change in response to their environment, just like they're supposed to. If your tire weren’t capable of losing air, it wouldn’t be capable of holding air, either.

I suppose it’s a matter of opinion whether it sounds nice to be able to make yourself remain happy even in the face of tragedy. It doesn't sound good to me. Would it even be possible?

I have no idea really, but trying to do so would probably mean denying perfectly natural feelings. And any attempt to swap them out or plaster over them without acknowledging their source would likely result in more negative feelings and unhelpful behaviors showing up elsewhere.

It's okay to be happy if you get a promotion, upset if someone you think is undeserving gets a promotion instead of you, sad if someone dies. Yes, you are having an emotional response to an external event, and that's a good thing: it means that you're functioning normally.

Relaxing into your experience of life

It's not the emotions that are the problem. It's actually the rejection of them, judging them as unacceptable, and/or needing them to be different—the very things you’re often told to do—that get you into trouble. This isn’t to say that your conditioned, mindless reactions to your emotions are always wise and healthy. Often they’re not, and they can also get you into trouble and lead to more unhappiness.

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That's why it's important to pay attention to your feelings. They're there for a reason, and they can clue you in to inner processes that, if you're willing to take a closer look, can help you achieve the kind of relationship to your life that you'd probably like to have. One in which the richness and depth of your human experience is celebrated, rather than suppressed.

Your heart and mind are meant to supple; to be alive in response to input, like a skin stretched over a drum, registering an impact and resonating with a tone. Notice what circumstances give rise to feelings of anger, fear, shame, sadness, or guilt—and joy—within you, and trust that those responses mean something that is important for you to know about yourself.