Make People Happier by Acknowledging That They’re Not Feeling Happy.

The Happiness Project Blog Logo

Sometimes, an idea sounds so simple, and so non-controversial, that it takes a while to appreciate how important and helpful it is.

I found this to be true about a happiness-project resolution I made after reading the brilliant parenting book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. In it, the authors Faber and Mazlish suggest acknowledging the reality of other people’s feelings: instead of denying feelings like anger, irritation, fear, or reluctance. articulate the other person’s point of view. In other words, Make people happier by acknowledging that they’re not feeling happy.

Sounds easy, right? Wrong. I had no idea how often I contradicted other people’s assertions of their feelings until I tried to quit. “You always have fun when we go.” “You should be thrilled, this is great news.” “It won’t be that much work.”

I had the opportunity to put this resolution into action just yesterday, over a minor issue that could nevertheless have turned into a big pain. We’ve had a lot of snow here in New York City, and I wanted my younger daughter to wear her snow boots to school, but she wanted to wear sneakers. (Why do children always resist wearing appropriate gear?) I could tell by the warning signs that she was on the brink of getting very riled up. Without this resolution, I would have answered her protests with a stream of contradictions: “The boots aren’t uncomfortable,” “You’ve worn them before, and they felt fine,” etc. Instead, the conversation went like this:

“I don’t want to wear those boots. They don’t feel comfortable.”
“It’s wet and snowy out, so you need to wear the boots, but you’d rather not.”
“I don’t want to wear the boots.”
“You wish you could wear your sneakers.”
“I don’t want to take my sneakers in a bag, I want to wear them.”
“You just don’t feel like wearing these boots today! They aren’t as comfortable to wear for the long walk to school.”

Then she calmly put on the boots. Really.

Experts say that denying bad feelings intensifies them; acknowledging bad feelings allows good feelings to return. That sure seemed to be what happened. Also, on my side, it’s much more pleasant to feel calm, agreeable, and understanding.

This principle is just as true for adults. Recently, I undertook a MAJOR household project. Which, I admit, I did with about zero grace—but I did do it. My husband was well aware of my simmering resentment. Just before I was about to start the biggest part of it, he looked around and remarked, “Well, this doesn’t look like it will be too tough.” Wrong thing to say! Probably, he thought he was being comforting or encouraging. Instead, he enraged me. It would have been better to have acknowledged my feelings, by saying something like, “Wow, this looks like a huge job, it’s great that you’re going to do this.” Plus it never hurts to give me some gold stars.

I’ve found, too, that when other people deny or ignore my feelings, I tend to keep repeating myself (i.e., whining), because I think my feelings haven’t registered. So, for example, maybe my husband doesn’t want to talk about my irksome problems with my email, and I don’t even particularly feel like talking about it, but until I get my “Wow, that must be so annoying,” I can’t let it go.

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.



Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?

Sign up for our weekly newsletter “5 things making me happy”.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.