Think of your moods as a thermometer that takes the temperature of your life, if you just want to be happy all the time, it’s like wanting to break your thermometer.
– Robert Biswas-Diener
In the last few years, an interesting shift happened. The happiness and well-being movement exploded and with it countless books, lectures, workshops, courses and social media articles started to sneak into our daily lives, influencing the way we think and act.
I’m all for well-being and I’ve read most of those books. I’ve studied it for more than a decade.
I had coaching clients tell me their goal was to be happy all the time.
I see this happening more and more now. I realized that the issue is how we think about and define well-being.
As a society, we probably never experienced more pressure to be the happiest, brightest and greatest creatures of all time.
And this is where things get messy. Well-being is not the absence of negative emotions or experiences, otherwise, we would all be doomed.
The picture perfect image of well-being and happiness as the absence of any type of hardship, discomfort or pain is just not real or serving us.
And the incessant pursuit of happiness may be the cause of the problem instead of the solution.
Barry Schwartz, author and professor of social theory at Swarthmore college says: “Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing, but happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.”
The good life is best construed as a matrix that includes happiness, occasional sadness, a sense of purpose, playfulness, and psychological flexibility, as well as autonomy, mastery, and belonging.
– Robert Biswas-Diener
I’ll start by explaining why I think this is relevant.
Can you remember a time you were in the midst of pain? Maybe someone was unfair to you, betrayed your trust, or you experienced a loss. Maybe you made a mistake that you felt ashamed of.
When you shared this painful experience with your family or friends, how they did react? Did they try to reframe it? Did they show you the bright side of the situation? Did they try to somehow change how you were feeling?
When we do this, aren’t we teaching ourselves and others that certain emotions aren’t acceptable and that we don’t know if we can handle them?
One of my closest friends, whenever I experience sadness and pain, he shows up, hugs me or holds my hand while I cry. He doesn’t try to change anything about my emotional experience.
He’s capable of accepting his own pain when it arises, so he can just be present when someone else is in pain. This is not only refreshing but necessary. Because the message it conveys is: occasional sadness is inevitable and I know you can handle it.
In the last few years, however, we’re seeing society become increasingly intolerant to pain and frustration.
Positive thinking messages are everywhere. Anything less than positive, pleasant or extraordinary is not acceptable.
Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist, and lecturer at Harvard calls this discomfort with discomfort.
What this does is create new layers of pain, leading people to feel bad for feeling bad.
There’s so much pressure to let go of any and everything that stresses us. To be the happiest we can, that when people face inevitable setbacks and experience uncomfortable emotions, it’s as if they’re failing and morally looked down on.
Some people refer to it as the tyranny of the positive.
However, these emotions are a natural part of our human landscape. They serve an important purpose. The emotions are not the issue. Whether or not we respond to them in a healthy way is the issue.
Research tells us that trying to deny or ignore these thoughts and emotions only amplifies them.
I believe that as a society we need to start giving people permission to be human again. We need to embrace a more nuanced approach to well-being. One that takes into account the natural dark side of life.
The Importance Of The Dark
People with low tolerance to frustration and pain have a hard time adjusting to less than perfect situations. This low tolerance for pain makes them less resilient because resilience implies normal levels of anxiety.
If you’re trying to avoid pain and frustration:
1. You’re not going to engage with life fully.
2. Your drive will be to avoid any type of situation that can cause these emotions because you fear you can’t handle them.
3. By avoiding them you’re constantly proving to yourself that you can’t handle these emotions.
4. If you haven’t been in contact with these emotions, change or real growth is very hard.
The problem originates with thinking in dualistic ways. Positive can only lead to positive and negative can only lead to negative.
This, however, is not accurate. We have to look at things in a continuum and in its context.
See, we tend to think that:
- Negative conditions only lead to dysfunction and poor functioning.
- Positive conditions allow optimal functioning.
- Positive conditions can be followed by poor functioning.
- And negative conditions can lead to healthy functioning.
I recently saw a video of someone claiming optimism is always better. I understand where the person was coming from, optimism has indeed many benefits and. It isn’t, however, always better.
In certain contexts, being a defensive pessimist and taking into account the risks will allow us to prepare and cope with the challenges ahead.
In some cases, imagining failure can be more helpful than imagining success. In one study, psychologists Stadler, Oettingen, and Gollwitzer (2009) brought in a group of women whose common goal was to start exercising.
Then they randomly split these women into 2 groups:
- One group had the typical positive approach to exercise: it’s good to exercise, think about your goal and visualize yourself succeeding.
- The other group was in the obstacle condition: they were asked to imagine themselves failing, and visualize how and why they would do it and to keep track of it, in order to predict future failures.
The results showed that the women in the obstacle condition immediately doubled the amount of time they exercised.
Four months after the study the women in the failure condition were not only still exercising, but they were doing it twice as much as the women in the standard positive condition.
This is just one example, but the same holds true for just about everything. High levels of self-esteem are sometimes correlated with narcissism and bullying. Positive emotions can lead people to become complacent with unfair situations.
Anger, which is typically perceived as negative, is a response to an ethical or moral value being breached (Tavris, 1989).
(How we deal with it is obviously key).
And if it sometimes leads to violence and anti-social behavior. It can also lead us to speak up against situations of oppression or inequality. Without anger and outrage, we wouldn’t have many of our rights.
Sadness is not a disorder. It’s inherent to human nature. Losing someone we love and experiencing profound sadness is not wrong, nor does it signal a disorder. It’s a natural, adaptive response to a painful experience.
Engaging with pain and discomfort can enable growth, transformation, and healing.
Post-traumatic growth refers to the increase in psychological functioning that follows a traumatic experience.
A traumatic experience also increases the chances of developing a disorder, and it’s important to mention that.
But in some cases, people who faced serious trauma report:
- Strengthened relationships,
- A different perception of themselves (that includes wisdom , strength, gratitude),
- A different way of looking at life and understanding what matters most to them.
No one would suggest that you go out and actively seek traumatic experiences. But to deny the inevitability of pain and discomfort in life is to deny it’s own complex nature.
By defining well-being in a way that acknowledges occasional sadness and the dark side of life, we’re more likely to cope with these normal experiences. Developing a more balanced approach to it.
A lot of times well-being and happiness are used as synonyms. But it can be confusing to understand the terms clearly.
And well-being is often referred to as an umbrella term that can have different meanings depending on the framework, but that includes happiness.
Ed Diener, one of the leading researchers in happiness, explains subjective well-being as:
The scientific name for how people evaluate their lives. People can evaluate their lives in terms of a global judgment (such as life satisfaction or feelings of fulfillment), in terms of evaluating the domains of their lives (such as marriage or work), or in terms of their ongoing emotional feelings about what is happening to them.
– Ed Diener
In an effort to understand the role and relevance people assign to the different components of well-being, researchers Antonella Delle Fave (2010) and colleagues designed a study that combined both quantitative and qualitative methods, gathering data from 7 countries (Australia, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and South Africa).
They asked participants for their definition of happiness. Some people answered in terms of life domains and others referred psychological dimensions.
- More than half of the answers regarding life domains, associated happiness with relationships (both family and interpersonal relationships).
- In the psychological domains of happiness the prominent category was harmony/balance.
They also asked people what they consider meaningful in life, the most common answers were:
- Interpersonal Relationships
Harmony and balance, the psychological domain associated with happiness, doesn’t necessarily imply having good relationships with others, although it can be a part of it.
But it refers to inner peace, self-acceptance, serenity, a feeling of balance and evenness (Delle Fave, Brdar, Freire, Vella-Brodrick, & Wissing, 2010).
The term is best understood in Asian philosophical traditions. The Chinese scholar Yan Ying refers to mixing different things and balancing opposite elements into a whole.
It’s seen as a process rather than a state. It’s the constant interplay of different elements being integrated into a whole.
The Need For Flexibility
Getting stuck in dualistic (good/bad, positive/negative) approaches renders us more likely to be increasingly frustrated when we inevitably come across challenges and lows in life.
Flexibility allows us to come face to face with our reality and, instead of acting out of patterns that might not be adjusted to the situation, we’re able to pause and reflect on the best course of action for that specific circumstance.
Instead of thinking “optimism is always better” we can look at the situation and ask?
In this particular case, what works best?
Flexibility also allows us to understand that well-being is not an end state of perfection, free of any negativity, but rather a constant process and one that includes balancing opposing elements into a whole.
So how do we practice balancing opposites into a whole?
- By accepting that you will inevitably lose your balance sometimes. How would you learn how to balance, if you were always stable?
- Accepting unpleasant emotions as a natural part of life.
- Getting clear on what well-being looks like for you, not for anyone else.
- Understanding that well-being will most likely be a consequence of engaging fully with life and meaningful activities.
Well-being usually arises as a by-product of cultivating the activities that people find meaningful and relevant to them.
– Ed Diener
Wrapping It Up
We all love to feel inspired and happy. But the constant pursuit of happiness might make it increasingly difficult to achieve. Because often times we strive for what we don’t have enough.
Our ability to engage with life is tied to our ability to accept that we will inevitably experience pain.
Embracing the dark dimensions of life, allows them to be a part of our experience and to coexist with well-being.
One of the teachings of Taoism is the importance of acknowledging the dialectical nature of our human experience and to live in harmony with it. Inada said:
The enlightened or illumined life knows nothing positive or negative as such but everything in terms of fluid naturalness.
Now hold out your hand and accept the invitation to live your life fully.
Next, I’d love to hear from you. Do you feel pressure to be happy and bubbly all the time? How did you deal with it? Please leave a comment below. I love learning from you.
Delle Fave, A., Brdar, I., Freire, T., Vella-Brodrick, D., & Wissing, M. P. (2010). The Eudaimonic and Hedonic components of happiness: Qualitative and quantitative findings. Social Indicators Research, 100(2), 185–207.
Ivtzan, I., Lomas, T., & Hefferon, K. (2015). Second wave positive psychology: Embracing the dark side of life. Abingdon, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Stadler, G., Oettingen, G., & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2009). Physical activity in women. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 36(1), 29–34.