In The Book of Human Emotions, cultural historian Tiffany Watt-Smith writes about the changing focus of our emotional landscape:
“If you look back to 16th-century Renaissance Europe, there’s a fascination with sadness... You start seeing a lot of authors writing about how to be sad better, and what the appropriate sort of sadness is. It’s seen as valuable because it brings you closer to God…In some cases, a more severe form of sadness, melancholia, was aligned with genius.”
Today, we talk about happiness in much the same way:
- How to be happy.
- How throwing away a bunch of our shit can make us happy.
- How not giving a shit can make us happy.
- How changing the shit you say to yourself can make you happy.
- How you can achieve a bunch of shit and be happy.
We can actually focus so much attention on happiness to the detriment of feeling or experiencing our other emotions.
Studies show that emodiversity, which means allowing yourself to feel sad, angry, irritable, bored, and frustrated, is positively correlated with higher mental and physical health.
But we live in a society that puts a lot of focus on both feeling happy and pursuing happiness.
In a study that came out in 2018, researchers analyzed a group of people by asking them questions about their happiness goals. The researchers found that self-analysis about happiness and goal-setting tends to make people less happy.
Unlike other goals, pursuing happiness rarely leads to attaining happiness (Schooler, Ariely, & Loewenstein, 2003). Instead, seeking happiness more often, ironically, decreases happiness, in turn causing a previous act of seeking happiness to prompt continued behavior devoted toward the same objective (i.e., acts of seeking happiness).
In another study, participants listened to music that had previously been rated as neither particularly happy nor particularly sad. One group was instructed to try to feel as happy as possible, the other to jusy listen. The group that had been told to try to feel happy ended up less happy than their counterparts. The researchers gathered that this was because their expectations were higher: they thought they should be feeling happy, were frustrated, and ended up feeling less happy overall.
Chasing happiness makes people anxious. It makes them overwhelmed. It makes them feel pressured that they have to be happy all the time.
What we forget is that happiness is about being, not pursuing. And that being means accepting a whole range of experiences.
Here is some real shit:
1. Feel it ALL.
Don’t like being angry? Sad? Irritated? Bored? Tough shit.
You get to wake up everyday and be a goddamn human, and part of being a goddamn human is having the full human experience.
That means feeling the good and the ugly, the positive and the negative.
Positive emotions make you feel good and tell you when things are right. Negative emotions suck, but they also shine a light on things that are wrong and alert you to take action to correct them.
Shitty emotions are your compasses. Don’t like how pissed off you get because so-and-so is taking advantage of your kindness? Well, don’t let them do that anymore! Does that stupid boyfriend of yours always make you cry? Dump him!
Feel your shitty emotions, and then learn how to manage them effectively (like with an ACTION). Most importantly though, FEEL them. THEY ARE NECESSARY AND IMPORTANT AND THERE FOR A GODDAMN REASON, YOU HUMAN YOU.
2. There’s no one formula that is going to promise you happiness.
There’s no monopoly on the ONE way to be happy. There’s no ONE book that will work for everyone (but plenty have been on the New York Times Best Seller list for weeks and weeks promising that this is in fact the one). Find out what works for you. Feel all the things, practice acceptance, and then move the fuck on.
3. Success doesn’t fuel happiness.
We all have dreams and shit, but what happens if you start telling yourself, “When I get this job…when my book sells…when I find Mr. Right…THEN I’ll be happy”? Well, honey dearest, then you’d be stuck again in that pursuit mindset, that sense that you can’t be happy now, that your happiness lies somewhere in the future, also called “destination addiction:”
“Beware of Destination Addiction: a preoccupation with the idea that happiness is in the next place, the next job and with the next partner. Until you give up the idea that happiness is somewhere else, it will never be where you are.”
Like before, if you’re not focused in the now, which means the WHOLE now, the whole LIFE IS BORING AND WHAT IS NEW ON SOCIAL MEDIA now, the whole I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT BASTARD LEFT ME now, you are going to struggle and struggle with being happy.
The truth is that happiness fuels success. When you’re happy with what you have and are taking care of yourself, you’re going to feel less stressed and be more productive. You are also going to focus on living a life that is meaningful to you, which might mean creating a different definition of success for yourself. It might be becoming a CEO for a Fortune 500 company or it might be having a really satisfying relationship with your family. You’d get to decide that and not worry as much about social expectations around “success.”
The poet Hafiz said,
“Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.”
And sometimes the only way happiness is going to find you is after your heart gets broken or you just had your seventh consecutive bout of the shits before you have a major career-changing presentation.
Sometimes the only way happiness is going to creep up on you is because you accept your whole now — both the fact that you’ve grown fat and your daughter just graduated from college — and feel pretty damn okay about all of it. Sometimes too we forget that we can be our most happy when we are content.