Assay: I’m surprised by how often people say to me something like, “Well, of course, you think people should be blissfully happy every minute of every day” or “You argue that people should aim never to experience negative emotions.”
But I never argue that. I don’t believe that.
For me, at least, the aim of a happiness project is not to eliminate all forms of unhappiness from life. Given the reality of existence, as well as human nature, that’s not possible, and even if it were possible, it’s not desirable.
Negative emotions — up to a point — can play a very helpful role in a happy life. They’re powerful, flashy signs that something isn’t right. They often prod me into action.
The First Splendid Truth holds that to be happier, I have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.
“Feeling bad” is a very important element. In fact, one reason I started my happiness project was to stop bad feeling such as guilt, resentment, and boredom. Guilt for losing my patience with my children. Resentment toward my husband for his failure to feed me gold stars. Boredom with activities that I thought I “ought” to find fun. Importantly, the pain of seeing others’ pain acts as a prod to action — whether the pain of people in my life, or out in the world.
Figuring out ways to eliminate these bad feelings led me to a happier life — and a more virtuous life, as well.
Also, one key to happiness is self-knowledge, and yet it’s very, very hard to know myself — especially painful aspects that I’m trying to deny or cover up. Negative emotions shine a spotlight on things I’m trying to hide. For example, when I was thinking of switching careers from law to writing, the extremely uncomfortable emotion of envy helped show me what I really wanted; when I read class notes in my alumni magazine, I felt only mild interest in most careers, including the people with interesting legal jobs, but I envied the writers. My guilt about the way I snapped at my family makes me stick to my many resolutions aimed at helping me feel calm and light-hearted.
Along the same lines, the anxiety to deny your true actions can be an important signal. A friend of mine said, “I knew I had to get control of my children’s TV time when I heard myself lying to the pediatrician about how TV they watched each week.” Another friend admitted, “In my new job, I can walk to work. I kept telling people I did walk to work, but really, I’d only walked a few times. I realized that the idea of walking must be important to me — or else I wouldn’t bother to lie about it — and also I needed to be truthful with myself about what I was really doing. So finally I really did start walking.”
Of course, as Samuel Johnson pointed out, “The medicine, which, rightly applied, has power to cure, has, when rashness or ignorance prescribes it, the same power to destroy.” The bitter medicine of negative emotions can be helpful within a certain range, but if it creates severe unhappiness — or certainly depression — it can become so painful that it interferes with normal life. And that’s when you need serious help.
A big part of being happier, I’ve found, is finding ways either to eliminate the causes, or if that isn’t possible, to deal constructively with negative emotions and difficult situations.
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.