“Our happiness comes not as a goal, but as a byproduct of engaging in honesty with ourselves,” claims Susan David, author of Emotional Agility, a leading psychologist at Harvard Medical School. She says that relentless positivity, which says “Be positive, be happy, have a great mood, and everything will be fine,” doesn’t lead to happiness. Instead emotional honesty can enable us to be happy.
What does it take internally in the way we deal with our thoughts, emotions, and stories, to help us thrive in the world? Her finding is counter-intuitive: “Just be happy. What’s wrong with you? Have a good attitude,” does not help.
She elaborates in a syndicated column in Heleo.com: “I had my own experience with this when I was 15 years old. My father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and I had this group of people coming to me and saying, ‘Just be positive. Everything will be okay.’ It wasn’t okay. My father was dying, and then dead. I engaged in a relationship with this amazing teacher who instead of saying, ‘Just be positive,’ she showed up to me. She invited me to explore in a journal what I was going through. What did help was engaging with myself in a way that was honest.”
One of her friends, who died of cancer speaks of “focus on being happy all the time as the tyranny of positivity.” She adds: “By telling us to just be and think positive, it makes us feel culpable in our own death, that somehow we weren’t positive enough. We couldn’t think ourselves out of the situation. It stops me from being authentic with myself, with my experience, and being able to be present with the people that I love.”
Her conclusion is that people who focus on being happy actually, over time, become less happy. Our happiness comes not as a goal, but as a byproduct of engaging in honesty with ourselves.
For this we need to reveal ourselves. Instead of trying to push our emotions aside or trying to put on a happy face instead, literally drop any struggle that you have within yourself by ending the battle. Not saying to yourself, “I’m unhappy, but I shouldn’t be unhappy.”
Really just open up to the fact that we have a full range of emotions. These emotions have helped us and evolved to enable us to position ourselves effectively in the world. “Our difficult emotions point to the things that we value.” We can learn to step out of our emotions. It’s important to recognise that our emotions contain data.
Instead of struggling with our emotions, it’s important for us is to ask, “What is the function of this emotion? What is the value? What is this emotion trying to tell me?”
Here it is important to recognise that our emotions are data, not directions. Because I feel guilty doesn’t mean I need to feel guilty. We can create space, the “stepping out” part. Her experience is that if we step out and get to know ourselves, if we slow down enough, figure out what is really going on, give ourselves space to complain, to write, it allows us to get unstuck. This enables us to be happy, not as goal, but as byproduct.
She refers to Viktor Frankl, the survivor of Nazi death camps, who says: “Between stimulus and response there is a space, and in that space is our power to choose, and it’s in that choice that comes our growth and freedom.” So often, we get hooked by our emotions. We treat them as fact, leaving no space between the stimulus and response. That precious little space enables us to be free, authentic and fulfilled!
(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)