How to be happy: part 1

Even dogs have dog days.

Even dogs have dog days.

Many years ago, I was shooting pool with my boyfriend (not Mr. Strong and Silent). At the time, I worked as a general assignment newspaper reporter and I was tapped dry on story ideas.

“I need to write a story or I’m going to get fired,” I told him, “But I can’t think of a single thing to write about. I don’t know what to write about. What should I write about?”

He answered me with a question. “What do you want to know more about? If you could read anything, what would it be about?”

Without hesitation, I said, “How to be happy.”

I never wrote about that topic, but I did read about it. I read book after book after book and, over a period of many years, I am happy to report that some of the advice actually worked. In the slightly more than 10 years since my late 20s, I’ve transformed from a shy, anxious, negative, sad person into a content (most of the time), calm (somewhat), purpose-driven person. I laugh easily, feel in control of my life, and am loved and supported by a large network of family, friends and colleagues.

During the next few weeks, I will share what I’ve learned with you in an ongoing How to be Happy series. I hope you find it helpful.

In today’s lesson, we’re going to deal with the opposite of happiness-with anger, sadness, fear, loneliness and all of those other feelings many of us wish were never invented.

Happiness Secret #1: Be okay with unhappy

There are people who will tell you to “think happy.” They suggest banning negative thoughts. They even advise you to put on a fake smile when you feel sad—claiming that a smile on the outside will lead to happiness on the inside. Such people will tell you to try any number of physical techniques when you feel a negative emotion: exercise, meditate, take a Valium, etc.

I think that’s all a bunch of hogwash, but I didn’t always think this way. I spent years trying to force myself to never feel angry, sad, lonely, what have you. Then I took a mindfulness meditation class. One morning I had trouble getting my daughter ready for daycare. She kept kicking her legs every which way, so I couldn’t for the life of me get her pants on. I’m sure it sounds funny to read about it but, at the time, I was close to contemplating murder. So I decided to meditate.

I meditated and meditated and meditated.

Later in the week, I went to class and told my teacher, “I was really angry. So I meditated. And when I was done meditating, I was still angry. Why didn’t the meditation work?”

She smiled and said, “It worked. It made you aware of your anger.”

I gave her one of those looks Luke Skywalker probably gave Yoda 16 million times. It said, “Please stop being cryptic and just tell me how to stop being so angry.”

And that’s when it hit me: my anger was a normal consequence of my sleep-deprived life as a working mother with a kid in the midst of the terrible twos and a husband who worked 12 hour days 7 days a week. I couldn’t meditate my anger away. To feel less angry, I needed to change my life-so I had fewer things to feel angry about.

Now that I’ve worked on my marriage and my career, I’m not nearly as angry. I do have my moments, though. I also occasionally feel down in the dumps. I occasionally get anxious. I occasionally dislike very likable people.

I occasionally have all sorts of not-so-pleasant emotions and thoughts. None of them make me a monster. None of them are bad. It was only after I learned how to become aware of them, accept them, and use them as clues for how I needed to change my life that I was able to create a much more blissful existence.

The next time you find yourself trying to wish away anger, grumpiness, sadness or some other sensation, I encourage you to do the following:

Normalize it. You might say, “I’m ungodly grumpy today, and I’m okay with that” or “Gee I’m really weepy, but that’s perfectly normal. Other people cry, too. I’m not the only one.”


Remind yourself that negative emotions are not terminal.
Sadness doesn’t kill you. It won’t last forever, either. If you can allow yourself to give into it and realize that it’s just a sensation, then you’ll be able to release your fear over feeling sad. Once you release the fear, the negative emotion won’t feel nearly as uncomfortable. It won’t be any more distressing than a cloudy day. Keep in mind that many people will not be this evolved. If you tell such a person, “Wow I’m really sad,” such a person will treat you like a terminally ill person, anxiously suggesting you do all sorts of things-right away-to feel better. It’s important to stay away from such people when you are feeling badly. They will do more than just make you feel worse. They’ll make you feel like a pariah.

Learn from it. Ask yourself, “Why do I feel this way?” The answer to this question isn’t always apparent, but you can get closer to that answer if you trace the sensation back to its root. What were you doing and who were you with when it first surfaced? The more often you do this, the more you will find out how certain people, situations and activities affect you. You might, for instance, realize that certain friends are really toxic to your inner world. Similarly you might understand that a certain TV show always leaves you feeling anxious.

Do something about what you just learned. Change your life for the better. Be assertive about your needs. Avoid toxic people. Ask for what you want. Rest more.

What do you do when you feel a negative emotion? Leave a comment.

33 comments… add one

  • Juli February 16, 2009, 2:28 pm

    I went through a similar phase last week. Found out some discouraging news and it really clouded my mood for the week. But, instead of being so uncomfortable by the discomfort, I allowed myself to feel bad knowing that it is ok, it was probably exacerbated by lack of sleep (I have a toddler with a cold) and that it will pass.

    I also frequently use a little mantra I picked up from one of my favorite happiness bloggers Gretchen Rubin (http://www.happinessproject.typepad.com/) – Act as I would feel. So many times as I change my behavior my mood really does change and it helps.

    Thanks for the post. It’s nice to hear about/relate to others going through similar things.

    Reply
  • Marylin February 16, 2009, 2:40 pm

    I don’t know any mother who doesn’t go through these times with our kids at the terrible twos, or the terrifying threes! ;)

    I have an awful tendency to get annoyed/upset at something and go through it repeatedly in my head. I’m starting to listen to myself and realise that I’m just going through a loop, so i can snap myself out of it. What’s the point in wasting energy (negative or positive) on something over and over again eh?

    I’ve tried applying it to times when I feel lethargic, or sad, or even when I get way too hyped up about something, and so far it’s actually making me feel much calmer. It may not seem ‘calm’ to others, but it usually is compared to how I used to be!

    Reply
  • Eve February 18, 2009, 1:16 am

    I have also learned to simply ACCEPT my sadness, anger, whatever for what it is. I think that has been most instrumental in transforming my life. I have also learned not to be in denial and realize that once I get over my sad days that they will in fact come back from time to time. There are days when my stepson will go through his “Terrible 11s” and I am able to laugh it off instead of letting it get under my skin. I simply picture him in his much more precious moments and the honeymoon is back on!

    Reply
  • Katie Ballard February 19, 2009, 5:37 pm

    I remember you telling me about this series that you are going to do. I love it…you don’t know how much it helps to know that im not the only one to think bad thoughts LOL. Thanks

    Reply
  • liz February 23, 2009, 8:39 pm

    Don’t mind me, I’m testing this out in Firefox!

    Reply
  • Karen February 25, 2009, 9:23 am

    Hi there,

    great post!!

    I had a really bad down in the dumps feeling just over the weekend too..

    What do you do if you realise that your friends and family are the toxins in your life? Do you really just leave them? Or ignore them?

    Reply
  • admin February 25, 2009, 10:30 am

    Karen: Great question.

    There will be some people in your life that you can’t get away from. In laws and blood relatives usually fall into this category. In this case, you need to use a combination of acceptance (this is just how this person is), assertiveness (when you say xxx, I feel xxx) and avoidance (not answering the phone when you are feeling vulnerable and your caller ID tells you there is a toxic person on the other end of the line). The most important thing to remember is this: Your happiness is just as important as someone else’s. The right answer for you may be different than it is for someone else–but deciding to cut certain toxic people out of your life (if needed) does not make you a bad person. It makes you human.

    Thanks for the great question. I plan to blog more about this soon. You’ve inspired me.

    Reply
    • William March 11, 2012, 7:24 pm

      I must say, I really love your comment. I cannot agree with you more, and it makes me very happy knowing that someone supports this very much. During life I felt really unperfect, impolite, rude and disrespectful when I have decided for myself that I would not talk to certain people I know, because of some uncomfortable or unpleasant situation. Everytime I decided to do that, from the side I have been told that I should accep the person the way they are, but inside myself I was growing really infuriated and kept replying that it doesn’t mean that I’m supposed to talk or socialize with that person. I felt very inhuman and only after reading this, I understood that it is a normal process, and that there is nothing wrong with being the way I am.

      Reply
  • Payson February 25, 2009, 5:14 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful post – I was having a terrible morning yesterday (as was every other woman I know… so I definitely was able to tell that I am not alone), and realized that it was ok. I had reasons to feel bad and the more I fought it the longer it would last. So, I sat down and wrote in my journal and did some exercises examining the thoughts and that eased the pressure somewhat. I was able to go out with friends last night and came home feeling much better. I definitely think many of us feel like we need to be ‘perfect’ all the time – happy happy happy. I also know that it’s human to have emotion – without it our lives would be so lack-luster and boring! Joy and happiness are a practice, and like all other practices, some days it just doesn’t go that well.

    Reply
  • Dr Carolyn Clansy Miller February 26, 2009, 6:18 am

    Great post! Emotions are a tricky thing. There are times when they are right on target and I just need to experience them. When something sad has happened, then a period of unhappiness is appropriate, right and natural. As you indicated in your post—our feelings can teach us something about what’s going on in our lives. Like you, I’ve learned to grow from what I become aware of. There are other times when my emotions are completely off. Although I can learn from that too, I tend to ask myself deeper and more probing questions. Why am I feeling this way? Are my feelings masking another emotions (e.g., am I really embarrassed rather than angry)?How am I handling my emotions–Am I eating my anxiety, worry or unhappiness? In such cases, I not only try to become aware of how I am feeling and behaving, but I also try to manage my feelings and if appropriate, reassess, change my thoughts and change the way I feel. Again….great post. I look forward to your upcoming entries!!!

    Reply
  • angela February 26, 2009, 10:16 am

    what i do is try to remember three good things in my life and really meditate on it. it does wonders for me… if i remember to do it!

    Reply
  • Tara Riggs November 4, 2009, 9:57 am

    Todays fresh passes. 4/11-09, Barely Legal Pass! Link/Download (http://sharembit.com/386/bar-legal.zip.html)

    Reply
  • smile November 14, 2009, 9:29 am

    hi dear..
    i know that being happy is not an easy thing…but having faith …being positiv could absolutly help you

    Reply
  • Teresa December 30, 2009, 1:32 am

    Mother of five, I can tell you when the little one won’t get dressed…or hold still the best advise is to say “okay, we are leaving now…” and walk out the door pants in hand…she will want them on before she gets outside…problem solved. Or if your little ones are “control” junkies which 3 out of 5 were at my house, I give them one good choice (the one you want them to pick) and the 2nd choice is one they wouldn’t like, and let them decided…say Okay it’s time to put your pants on, either you can do it yourself or mommy can help you…and then leave it at that…they will choose the “help” but they get a little control. As far as happiness…I can tell you most mom’s are over worked, over tired, and the “s” on their chest doesn’t stand for “super” anything, more like “super stupid”. My advise to women, is be selfish, take of you first, because no one is going to do it for you, or stop you from over working yourself, except your self. Husbands are very good at this. They stop when the are tired, the eat when the are hungry, the play when they need or want to…and so should we.

    Reply
  • Aleta Trotochaud March 7, 2010, 4:41 am

    sooo fake ;-)

    Reply
  • Marissa Navone March 17, 2010, 4:42 pm

    Hey I enjoy your blog I though I would allege Ive been a telephone set sex person for years and enjoy the business you can check me at Live Here. Im forever live there and love to delight and taunt.. Keep up the posts I love chatting about this line of work.

    Reply
  • Andrea Parker May 6, 2010, 5:24 pm

    I have written about happiness before too. “Be happy” is always very high on lists of New Years Resolations.

    Reply
  • christian marriage counseling June 12, 2010, 4:54 am

    Let your emotions be your guide. If you are feeling sad, angry, resentful or any other negative emotion, you need to be looking to change or remove the circumstances that make you feel that way…just like Alisa says.

    But remember, the only way for you to be sad is to allow yourself to be sad. The same applies to every emotion.

    If a particular event or action is constantly saddening you, then maybe you should change the way you respond to it. Recognize your negative state of mind and change your thoughts to how you will laugh about the current situation in 5 years time…or something else positive.

    By all means, don’t dwell on the negatives. It will only bring you more of the same.
    .-= christian marriage counseling´s last blog ..Candle Making Tips =-.

    Reply
  • Mariah M January 19, 2011, 9:57 pm

    I love this post but I think I’m going to have to disagree with this comment from Alisa:

    “There will be some people in your life that you can’t get away from. In laws and blood relatives usually fall into this category. In this case, you need to use a combination of acceptance (this is just how this person is), assertiveness (when you say xxx, I feel xxx) and avoidance (not answering the phone when you are feeling vulnerable and your caller ID tells you there is a toxic person on the other end of the line). The most important thing to remember is this: Your happiness is just as important as someone else’s. The right answer for you may be different than it is for someone else–but deciding to cut certain toxic people out of your life (if needed) does not make you a bad person. It makes you human.”

    I think that we are entitled to choose our family. There is no person that is entitled to be in contact with you and you are not required to accept anyone into your life that you don’t approve of. I have recently ended my relationship with both my own mother and my mother-in-law. I have three brothers and I only speak to two of them on a regular basis. I have cut most of my undeserving friends from my life and moved on.

    I think that the people you allow in your life will drag you down if you let them. I make no attempt to tie myself to anyone whom I feel doesn’t deserve me in their life. I can’t even begin to tell you how much happier my life is without these people. The way I see it, I’m just making room in my life for new, exciting, and positive experiences.

    Our attention can only be spread so far. If we’re spending our time with negative people, regardless of how we’ve labeled them, we are giving them some of the attention that could be used on positive people. It’s a great sacrifice but completely worth it in my opinion. I choose who I let into my world and I’ve created a happy place for that sacrifice.

    Thank you for this post. I enjoyed reading it. It made me think. I’ll be returning :)

    Reply
    • Alisa January 20, 2011, 7:40 am

      Mariah–Thanks for visiting, and I actually think we’re in agreement. We just said it in slightly different ways and had different versions of toxic people in mind as we wrote. I don’t think anyone ‘SHOULD” put up with a toxic relationship. It’s a choice–one that many people don’t realize they have or that they are making. You saw your choice and you were proactive and you did something about your life and your happiness. It was hard, but it was exactly what you needed to do. I admire you!

      Reply
  • Wendy Mihm May 19, 2011, 4:24 pm

    I get chronic headaches/migraines and boy, when I have a headache day, I am NOT happy! I often don’t treat my husband well and can be impatient with my kids.

    Then when I have good days, things generally roll really well, unless my son (the younger of our two kids — he just turned 2) is being difficult. Then things can get a little snappy around here. Fortunately I don’t really have any toxic people nearby, I just don’t have enough girlfriends close by that I can consistently turn to for support. They all have their hands full too. My husband is supportive, but nothing can take the place of a good girlfriend to really hear you. Unfortunately, my best two are geographically undesirable!

    Reply
  • emy June 21, 2011, 9:45 pm

    I like this post. To be happy is not easy but if we be willing to receive everything it irrespective of how the problem will be light

    Reply
  • Linda Wolf July 4, 2011, 2:26 pm

    Alisa,

    I agree with all your suggestions for dealing with negative feelings – I too have found the only way past them is through them, and acceptance is usually part of that for me. Another great tool for releasing negative feelings, at least for me, is to talk it through with people I trust who will listen and not judge, and let me figure out for myself what my next step is.

    Thanks for the topic!

    Linda Wolf

    Reply
  • Secret of Happiness July 27, 2011, 6:38 am

    Thanks a lot for sharing this great article. I’ve found it sometimes quite difficult to let go of the negative thoughts and feelings when I’m in a low mood or when I’m feeling unhappy. However, like Eckhart Tolle said: “Whatever you accept completely will take you to peace, including the acceptance that you cannot accept, that you are in resistance”

    Reply
  • marie September 14, 2011, 2:32 pm

    wow, i really like this article. i am a mother of a 2 year old, 3 year old and 4 year old. There have been times when i wanted to die and, then, 10 minutes later was praising God for such a wonderful blessing. I am 31 years old and just now realizing that happiness is a choice that you make everyday. It’s work, but articles like this make it much easier to find that happiness! thank you!

    Reply
  • Aida McGruder January 4, 2012, 2:07 pm

    I would like to found Happiness more in my life

    Reply
  • Charles Jones January 11, 2012, 7:32 am

    Alisa!

    Thanks for this post its really helps me.I agree with all your suggestions for dealing with negative feelings – But one thing i want to explain which i have found in my own experience that when someone who is your part of life and you can’t leave without him/her , whenever he/she in Angry , at that time you don’t reply him/her only a bit. You need to listen him/her whatever he/she speak. And after that when he/she in cool mood then you can tell him/her that he/she was wrong and all about his/her mistakse of that time!
    Because this is a part of our life and we need to listen each other cool and hard Word of speak.

    Reply
  • TJ@How-toBeHappy.com January 22, 2012, 9:17 pm

    Alisa,

    Very good post! I was able to relate as the reason I started my website was the same as yours. I figured if I was going to spend all of my time writing and learning about something, then it darn well better be the thing I want to know the most about. Happiness has intrigued me my entire life as situations early in life have made it a difficult thing to obtain. It follows along the lines that most people become professionals in the areas they personally need the most help in (no offense psychiatrists!) I hope to learn more from your posts and hope we are able to help each other in the future.

    Keep up the good work!
    -TJ

    Reply
  • Liza June 14, 2012, 8:19 pm

    also, remember that often- even with side things going on like lack of sleep- you are feeling appropriate reactions. When you’ve got 50 things to do to get out of the house on time, and the little one won’t even get pants on, plus the phone’s ringing, etc. it is perfectly appropriate and normal to feel angry, frustrated, etc. If you were perfect, you’d always wash it away w/ deep breathing and tackling each problem calmly and effectively. But be ok with not being perfect. It actually feels good to feel like you have every right to be mad, but lo and behold, you still have handled the problems. Part of being human is feeling such a vast array of emotions. The issue more becomes when feelings and reactions are inappropriate- say you throw your mug of coffee and call out of work when the kid won’t get pants on. Most people also, appropriately get over those small humps knowing there’s more to come thruout the day. I also tried, but am not a believer in ‘play happy till you are happy’. No, see me mad, frustrated, happy, sad, depressed, excited, nervous…..all of it.

    Reply
  • Sonia at Marriage Counselling August 13, 2012, 7:45 pm

    Awesome post! We all need that extra reminder!

    Reply
  • Sonia at Marriage Counselling August 13, 2012, 7:50 pm

    The post is very inspiring!!!

    Reply
  • JC July 24, 2013, 12:23 pm

    I’m having one of those weeks where I just want to cry. Its so hard for me to express “negative” emotions in my home without being told “I’m full of attitude” or “its not about me”. I kind of gave in today, I closed myself in my bedroom while my children were playing, and I just cried and cried and threw pillows and cried some more. I don’t know if its healthy or not, but I was able to get enough out, and calmed down and continued the rest of my morning.

    Reply
  • Angela January 7, 2014, 11:52 am

    No matter what I think , say or do, I can’t feel any happiness…I’m tired of all the “think positive” crap I get from my friends…then when I just get to a point where I think “hey….it’s been a good day, a good week, I get a text message from my ex that was meant for his new girlfriend telling her hey babe, call you in a bit. I love you so much”….really…then back to the old crying and feeling sorry for myself again…Hate it!!! Can’t get paste it!!!

    Reply

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