We’ve all been there before: standing in the stationery store surrounded by pretty colours, oohing and ahhing at the swirly patterns and rose gold embellishments, when suddenly an overly cheerful affirmation printed in giant cursive screams the message “Be Happy!”. You see it and wince, finding yourself feeling vaguely affronted for reasons you can’t quite pin down.
I know I’m not alone in cringing; the exasperation people are beginning to feel with such orders is not unique to my own cynicism, as the popularity of Sarah Knight’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k” demonstrates. Yet there are many hardcore believers who continue to offer well-intentioned advice to the tune of “just choose happiness!”
These affirmations spring from the positive psychology movement which has been a trend of the past decade. Its influence is felt everywhere from the workplace to our home décor. I’m here to tell you that it has to stop.
For those of you gritting your teeth and telling yourself “just be happy” and finding it ineffective, this is for you. Breathe in, breathe out, and read on. As for all those well-intentioned people who offer up these tidbits of advice, I’d like to offer you an alternative which will probably serve the very people you’re trying to help far more effectively.
You can’t choose how you feel, but you can choose how you act.
This is, I think, the underpinning message that the positive psychology movement was always meant to promote but somehow rarely did. The idea was always that we can’t change some of the things that happen to us, so we have to learn how to roll with it and take steps that help us cope with whatever is going on, whether that be yoga, colouring in, or simply taking a deep breath and telling ourselves to harden the fuck up. This is the fundamental thing I wish people would say instead of “choose happiness”, or, in the eternally frustrating words of a family member, “why can’t you just be happy?”. People don’t choose their feelings – they choose how they respond to those feelings. That was the entire point of much of the positivity movement in the first place – rather than wallowing in your negative feelings, go and do something productive so you’re not dwelling on it. What got lost in translation was another fundamental truth which is equally important:
Your feelings are valid and you’re entitled to them.
We’ve known for a long time that repressing feelings is dangerous. We know that when people try to bottle up their emotions and act like everything is fine, sooner or later shit’s going to get really real. It’s consequently important to acknowledge how you’re feeling and recognise that you’re damn well entitled to feel whatever way you do.
I’m the queen of the personal mantra of “don’t be a crazy person”. I rarely actually listen to this instruction, but nevertheless I’ve done a pretty good job over the years of telling myself I’m being utterly ridiculous for feeling a certain way. As I’ve gotten older, however, my mindset has changed. My feelings don’t make me crazy – I’m damn well entitled to them. Am I wrong to get upset over the fact that the guy I liked ended up getting a girlfriend weeks after telling me he wasn’t ready to get serious with anyone? Well, no, I’m actually pretty entitled to feel rejected. What I’m not entitled to do is then send him 50 messages and stalk his home and workplace while throwing paper planes at him that unfold to reveal the message “you jerk”.
Even when your feelings are less justifiable, the simple fact of the matter is that feelings are an instantaneous response. Feeling something doesn’t make you crazy. Lashing out and acting poorly because of those feelings, however, can definitely make you crazy and have far longer reaching implications. But you need to stop beating yourself up for the instant reaction. And sometimes, even with the best of coping strategies, those feelings are going to linger even if you’re taking all the right actions. And that’s okay too, and brings me to the next point:
It’s okay to acknowledge the disconnect between your feelings and your actions
So you’re coping with whatever’s going on like an adult. You’re eating well, going to the gym, balancing your work and personal life equally, and somehow between all that are achieving the self-actualisation many have always dreamed of. Good for you! And yet… you still feel like shit.
Sometimes, especially when it comes to things like grief, emotions can linger around for a lot longer than we care to admit to others. Depression is very similar in this regard – people see that you’re doing well and assume that all is fine without really being able to grasp the fact that it isn’t. It’s all well and good to want to protect people from what you’re really feeling so that you don’t stress them out, but for your own sanity it’s also good to sometimes acknowledge both to yourself and to others that it’s not that simple. You are perfectly entitled to say “actually I’m still upset, but I’m trying not to focus on it and just getting on with things”.
Acknowledging that you’re not feeling great but still taking positive steps doesn’t make you weak or whiny or whatever other adjective you’ve been telling yourself you are. It makes you a fairly well-adjusted human being rather than a placard with a smiley face that reads “I’m great! How about you?”.
So what happens when someone you thought was fine acknowledges that they aren’t? Simple: shut up and listen. Ask them what they want or need from you. If they need a vent, let them vent and don’t judge them for whatever they’re feeling. If they need a distraction, ramble incessantly about your cat for long enough that they forget what the hell they were worried about and are instead just dumbfounded by your ability to maintain a stream of conversation entirely by yourself for hours (or maybe that’s just me). Just. Listen. Their feelings are not about you, and they’re not some attention-seeking cry for help. They’re just someone being honest and open with you. Feel privileged that they like you enough to do so, and don’t freak out and start treating them like they’re on the precipice about to jump off a cliff. Check in a gentle manner. A “hey how are you feeling?” is a perfectly acceptable follow-up, and if their response is “still shit”, then “I’m sorry” is often enough. And when it’s not, adding “Anything I can do?” surely is. You probably can’t do anything, but they probably appreciate that you asked and cared enough to check in the first place.
Don’t tell people there’s a purpose to their struggles
This is one of the things I have found most cringeworthy about the current push towards “positivity” – that line touted off at every tragedy: “Everything happens for a reason”.
It’s a throwaway line which many people believe wholeheartedly, but honestly, please just stop offering it up as consolation. If you apply it to yourself, no problem. Whatever gives you strength is absolutely a positive thing. What is not a positive thing is assuming that others share your belief. You might be right; maybe in years to come they will look back on this struggle and realise they became a better person because of it. Maybe. But the good old equally annoying “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” does not apply to every person and every situation. Sometimes, life is shit. Sometimes, life is unfair. And trying to assign meaning to it to someone who is suffering and probably angry and hurt does little but make them think about slapping you in the face. It’s great that you believe that everything has a purpose, but apply it to your own life, not to other people’s.
Sometimes, we don’t get a say in what happens to us. Sometimes, we don’t get a say in how we feel about things. Sometimes, you can do everything right and still have it all blow up in your face. Next time that happens, don’t feel bad about the instant surge of distaste you feel when you see a framed slogan in Target for $15 telling you everything’s fine, as though commercialism were the true answer to your misery. Acknowledge the suckage. Wallow in it for a little while. Then pick yourself up and choose to act in a way which helps you move forward. You can’t choose how you feel, but you choose how you act. Stop feeling like happiness is a game that you’re losing; instead, remember that with each action you take that moves you forward, you’re gaining one more point in the game of life. Go forth and level up my friends.