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.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.