This blog is called Feel Happiness for a reason. The pursuit of happiness is indeed a noble pursuit, and working to become a happier person has many obvious (and some not so obvious) benefits.
But it would be easy to take this truth and derive some altogether false and damaging ideas from it. Happiness is indeed a virtue, but it is too easy to dismiss negative emotions as, by contrast, something “bad". It’s not pleasant to feel frustrated, sad, anxious, and so on, but that doesn’t mean that these negative emotions are altogether or intrinsically bad. In fact, experiencing a variety of emotions is an enormously beneficial thing – and it is a defining element of our humanity and necessary for living a balanced life.
I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately – I feel like many of us, myself most certainly included, don’t actually listen to what our emotions are telling us. For instance, I may feel frustration and then, well…that’s it. I was frustrated, it sucked, I probably complained for a while, and now I’ve moved on to something else. But it is worth considering that this frustration has a value in and of itself, plus I’m most likely feeling frustrated for a reason – something I may be able to do something about.
Listen To Your Emotions
Chances are you’ve heard about the condition where someone is physically incapable of feeling pain. While that sounds great at first, we know that it is actually a terrible curse; pain is a damn good thing to feel when your hand is on a hot stove, otherwise you will cause serious damage to yourself.
The same is true of our emotions. Emotions help regulate our behavior, so it is ideal to feel the “appropriate" emotion during a given situation, rather than strictly feeling happiness at all times.
Allow me to share a personal story. Way back in the day, when I first began high school, I started dating this great girl. Well…I call it dating as a convention – realistically, given the way I treated the whole thing, no reasonable person would recognize it that way. In any case, I was very neglectful during the relationship. I did not appreciate her needs, and was far too focused on my own inexperience, nervousness, and self-doubts to be a competent boyfriend. Needless to say, we broke up fairly quickly.
After breaking up, I became oh so much worse. I was a nice guy before, I just had no idea what I was doing. But once we were apart, I became incredibly angry, resentful, and jealous. I basically ignored her for a year and was generally rude any time I did acknowledge her. Things certainly improved over time as I became more mature, but for years, I had harbored a regret about my behavior. I could never bring myself to actually voice this regret, and the guilt weighed heavily on me. For literally ten years, I had harbored that regret. Finally, after reading Lori Deschene’s book, Tiny Buddha’s Guide To Loving Yourself, I quit being stubborn, listened to my emotions, and apologized (in a concession to my ego, it was actually my contribution to that book which eventually motivated me. I suppose that is an added benefit of blogging/musing over these topics!). I wrote a lengthy letter elucidating my consistent asshole-ishness of the time and my sincere regrets. Immediately after writing that letter, I felt much better.
All of the negative emotions I described in this story were telling me something, and I almost universally ignored them. When I was nervous and self-conscious about the relationship, it was a sign that I should have been more open about what I was feeling at the time – and probably should have asked for advice. When I was feeling jealous and angry after we broke up, it was a sign that I needed to take steps to shore up my self-confidence, which was at precisely the level you would expect of a nerdy high school boy. And when I felt guilty about my past behavior, I should have apologized immediately instead of waiting many years to do so.
Yes, those emotions were crappy to experience at the time, but I experienced them for a reason. And had I listened to them sooner, perhaps I could have spared myself as well as my ex-girlfriend some grief, and I could have moved on with my life more quickly. Oh well, live and learn.
It’s not easy to listen to our emotions. To a large extent, this listening involves a rational evaluation of your circumstances – but emotions aren’t rational. In fact, a common piece of advice is to not make any serious decisions while “under the influence" of emotion, because you could more easily be swayed into making a mistake that you’ll regret when you are more level-headed. Given this challenge, how can we learn to listen to our emotions, particularly the highly distracting and unpleasant negative ones?
The answer, as is so often the case, is mindfulness. We must cultivate a more general awareness and understanding of our emotions, which is much easier to do when you have some additional “mental space". The usual recommendations, such as meditation, yoga, and exercise of course apply here. But if you are particularly interested in cultivating mindfulness with respect to your emotions, I suggest the following:
- When you feel yourself beginning to experience an emotion, particularly a negative one, make a small tweak to your self-talk. Rather than thinking “I am so frustrated at my boss right now!" think “I am noticing that I feel very frustrated with my boss right now." This simple change helps you to observe the emotion from a more objective standpoint.
- Do NOT fight against the emotion. It is okay to try and observe, but you are not doing so in order to feel it less intensely; rather, you are just trying to be conscious of the emotion and your response in real time.
- Allow the emotion to linger and/or evolve naturally. Don’t try to suppress, manipulate, or change it in any way.
- If possible, try to write down a couple notes about the experience and how it unfolded. Due to the nature of things, this will often be impractical and is not required, but writing stuff down tends to help solidify your understanding of them.
In my personal opinion, this whole process is important for both negative and positive emotions. However, positive emotions tend to be easier to understand (in my experience at least), in part because we tend to have no desire to suppress them. Understanding and learning from negative emotions is more challenging, since we naturally tend to fight, change, or suppress them. To understand your emotions, you need to feel them.
Negative Emotions Inform You Of Your Values
This is just a corollary of the above, but it is so important that it deserves its own space to be written about more explicitly.
What tends to trigger negative emotions in you? When do you feel these emotions, and what makes them go away?
Getting answers to these questions goes a long way towards informing you of your values, those ideals that are most important to you.
For instance, if you work 16-hour days, you will likely feel rather frustrated and anxious if your core values include family or leisure. Instead of suppressing those negative emotions, you can analyze them and try to understand why you are feeling that way. You can isolate the value of, say, family life, and then take actions in order to align your life more congruently with your values.
Of course, this is true for positive emotions as well. Just as you can elicit your values based on when you feel negative emotions, you can do so by analyzing those times that you feel happy, excited, etc. In my experience, this has proven to be far easier than learning from negative emotions – but as such, less rewarding.
It is more difficult to learn from negative emotions because we often tend to try and suppress those feelings either consciously or subconsciously through the use of defensive mechanisms. When you try to suppress the emotion, you lose all sorts of valuable data about your experience of that emotion, which makes learning from the experience more guesswork than it needs to be.
As such, I strongly recommend leaning into the negative emotions and feeling them fully, so that you can actually learn more about yourself from them. As you elicit values based on these emotions, you can change course when your life is incongruent with them.
Don’t Suppress Negative Emotions
When you suppress a negative emotion, you reap a short-term hedonic gain, but this gain does not come without consequences.
In the previous section, I briefly discussed how suppressing your negative emotions denies you critical information about yourself that you can use to improve your life. This is one of the major consequences of suppressing your emotions, but there are additional reasons why you should let yourself feel negative emotions fully.
In fact, by suppressing those feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, and so on, you are essentially admitting to yourself that you feel guilt over having those negative emotions. But guilt is a negative and quite unpleasant emotion itself! While you might be able to decrease the pain of a given negative emotion, the fact that it cultivates even further another negative emotion makes it a losing strategy.
Attempting to suppress or numb your negative emotions may suppress important parts of your humanity, in some cases including your ability to feel positive emotions. For instance, you may feel sadness that is caused by your ability to empathize with others. Suppressing this sadness makes it harder for you to relate to others, and could even make you less generous. Similarly, attempting to suppress your anger may also reduce your ability to feel passion – anger that may have previously motivated you to take action will no longer do so. If injustice doesn’t make you feel angry or sad, you will become docile and not do anything about it.
The idea that only seeking happiness and attempting to avoid negative emotions is not a wise move is nothing new to researchers in the field of positive psychology. But an extensive recent study lends further support to the idea that you should cultivate a range of emotional responses rather than just positive ones. In this study, those with higher “emodiversity" were significantly less likely to be depressed, plus they had better health outcomes based on a variety of metrics. It seems as though having a range of emotional experiences help us adapt better to our environment, both mentally and physically.
Feeling happiness and other positive emotions is not always a good thing. Yes, it feels good to feel good, and it feels bad to feel bad, but being willing and able to feel the whole range of human emotion is far more important.
The goal should be to feel the appropriate emotion during each circumstance rather than feeling happy all the time. Beyond this, we should strive to create the conditions in our own lives that make happiness the appropriate emotion to feel.