Time magazine Journalist Susan David notes: “The paradox of happiness is that deliberately striving for it is fundamentally incompatible with the nature of happiness itself.”
My interest in the enigma of “happiness” has persisted for many years, due in large part to my excessively analytical, self-conscious, and at times melancholic personality. I constantly wonder: is happiness the mathematical product of set variables? Does it derive from life circumstances that are inherently good or bad? Are certain emotions correlates or symptoms of happiness, or it’s counterpart?
My intrigue with this subject was recently renewed when I stumbled upon an article in Time magazine called “Don’t Worry, Be Gloomy: Negative Feelings have Benefits Too”. Being one married to stress, anxiety, and all it’s relatives, I was curious to learn why these emotions might actually serve me. Was it possible that feeling the emotions seemingly contradictory to happiness could, in fact, augment my well being?
This article, and a wealth of other research on this subject of happiness, explain how stereotypically “negative” emotions, such as anger, envy, stress, sadness, shame, anxiety and fear, can actually serve positive purposes. Psychology Today states, “Negative emotions are not only crucial to our existence but also—ironically—to feeling good. To live optimally in the world and endure its challenges, it’s necessary to engage the full range of psychological states we’ve inherited as humans.”
Anger, for example, occurs when we feel we are being undervalued. We respond with anger to prevent ourselves from being exploited; it leads us to advocate for our own well being and to assert our self-worth. According to Pyschology Today, anger also “boosts confidence, optimism and risk taking”, which can have very positive outcomes.
Anxiety can also be useful. When we are anxious, we are more active, aware, and stimulated. In addition, it can “point to ways in which we’re not being true to ourselves”, ways in which our actions “don’t align with our deepest values.” Anxiety can serve a “corrective purpose”, bringing us back on our rightful track.
Similarly advantageous, envy can make us strive to be better, and fear helps us avoid or escape danger. Shame conveys humility and remorse, which increases our likeability and often attracts compassion from others. Regret motivates corrective action and teaches us important lessons. Skepticism helps us form arguments and use unbiased reasoning.
Ultimately, Susan David reminds us that negative moods “summon a more attentive, accommodating thinking style” that leads us to “examine facts in a fresh and creative way.” She maintains: ” It’s when we’re in a bit of a funk that we focus and dig down.”
So is the state of temporary bliss really conducive to self-improvement? Personal well-being? Long-term happiness? Not necessarily. In fact, studies show that people in a state of “happiness” tend to be more gullible, accept easy answers, jump to conclusions, and avoid challenges. They also expect things that are unrealistic, resulting in disappointment and resentment.
Happiness, then, is not the result of everything going our way. It’s not the cheery outcome of avoiding challenges and tough realities. So, next time you find yourself in a funk, beset with anger, fear, shame, envy or anxiety, I invite you to find solace in these words from the infamous Mark Twain:
“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.”
Amen. Be calm and grouch on, my friends 🙂