Beyond Happiness

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We live in a cultural moment that glorifies happiness. For many of us, our greatest wish for our friends and family is for them to simply be happy—their days filled with joy and their relationships full of harmony. And while these desires are not necessarily harmful, have we gone too far in this pursuit? By prioritizing one feeling over others, have we missed the richness that our other emotions can bring to our lives? 

Many of us were socialized from a young age to separate our emotions into two groups: good or bad. Our “good” category holds all those emotions where we feel no pain or discomfort, which Dr. Barbara Frederickson defines as joy, gratitude, serenity, hope, pride, and inspiration, to name a few. Conversely, our “bad” emotions are those feelings that we do not like to experience—pain, sadness, disappointment, anger, jealousy, fear, etc. As children, our emotional framework is purely dualistic, and we quickly learn which emotions we should feel and which ones we should avoid. And although the labels can be dangerous on their own, the gradual embodiment of these labels is even more harmful. “It feels good to feel happy” becomes “I am good when I’m happy,” or “I am bad when I’m sad.” It’s no wonder that shame accompanies the bulk of our experiences of fear, doubt, jealousy, and anger. None of us want to be bad.

But what happens when these children grow into adults? Because of these learned values, we naturally grow into people on a quest to avoid pain or discomfort. We hoard our positive experiences, only spend time with people who look and think like us, and press harder and faster into those areas where we find success. All the while, we silently shudder when feelings of sadness, jealousy, or despair hum in the background of our consciousness.

But does this quest actually yield authentic happiness? Or has whatever happiness we do find become cheapened by this pursuit? Are we, in reality, missing the full bounty of happiness because we fail to honor the negative emotions for all the beauty they can bring into the world? This year alone provides us with powerful examples of what our negative emotions can produce. If it weren’t for anger over injustice, we wouldn’t have marches for marginalized communities that highlight and celebrate the value of our sisters and brothers, while inspiring awareness of wrongful violence and brutality. We wouldn't have a #metoo movement demanding this country change its views, treatment, and orientation toward women and girls. And this list could go on.

Further, experiencing our negative emotions provides our mind, body, and spirit with valuable information. They signal to us when we should take time to rest, ask for help, or use our voices to speak against abuse. 

Our happiness is more real when it’s balanced. We are more real when we hold space for all the emotions inside our souls—both the good and the bad.

It’s when we are brave enough to not harden or retreat in the face of these negative emotions, but rather identify, sit, and listen to them that we are able to get through to the other side. And perhaps, friends, this is one way we move beyond a superficial experience of happiness to a fuller experience of the emotion.