Some people appear to be hopped up on happy pills, being oblivious to any bad events going on around them. Others are all too quick to express their disgust at anything that doesn’t go exactly their way.
Could it be that the healthiest emotional mix is somewhere between the extremes? Say, four parts good feelings to one part bad feelings, shaken not stirred, and served with a twist of lime?
We all know that some people seem determined to be miserable. The other day on the radio, I heard about a study that found many people actually resist being happy. It turns out that trying to reassure someone when they’re depressed is likely to make them feel worse.
The suspected reason for this is that some people feel the need to stay attached to their perception of reality. They make a negative statement like “I hate my job.” Then someone tries to make them feel better by saying, “It’s OK, your job isn’t that bad.” But this statement conflicts with their perception.
They may resolve this conflict by saying, “Yes, my job IS that bad, and I’ll tell you why…” Feeling that they’re forced to prove their point, they end up making themselves feel worse.
Of course, there’s no need to prove that you hate your job. Instead of remaining attached to that perception and defending it against any evidence to the contrary, you could instead change your perception. Everything can be seen from multiple perspectives, and if you choose to look on the bright side of things, you’ll dramatically boost your happiness.
At the same time, do you want to improve your life solely by forcing yourself to see the good side, or do you also want your life to actually get better? Here’s where negative emotions come in. They tell us that something’s not right, thereby steering us towards what we want.
Consider the evolutionary purpose of pain. If you were to stick your hand in a fire, it would hurt. The pain would make you quickly recoil your hand and run off in search of water. Of course, you wouldn’t enjoy the pain, but if you didn’t feel it, you’d leave your hand in the fire and cause serious damage or death. The pain tells you you’re doing something wrong, and provides some very strong motivation to correct it immediately.
It works the same way with emotions. You may not like feeling negative emotions, but if you felt perfectly happy regardless of your circumstances, why would you ever try to make the right choices?
Even homeless people have a lot to be thankful for. But if a homeless person is constantly overjoyed with their life, they won’t be motivated to change it. On the other hand, someone who feels the fear of becoming homeless will do whatever they can to prevent that from happening.
The purpose of pain is to make you avoid danger. But once you’re doing everything you can, feeling more pain doesn’t help. If something is medically wrong with you, then a little pain is good, because it makes you go to the doctor. But chronic pain after you’re already receiving treatment is bad, because it hurts without a purpose. Likewise, negative emotions are bad once they get beyond the point of being constructive.
There are two extremes that you want to avoid. Staying constantly focused on what’s wrong with your life may make you determined to fix the situation, but it will put you through far more misery than necessary. On the other hand, acting like Pollyanna on Prozac all the time may make you feel good, but it won’t inspire you to action when something is going wrong.
The best mix is to enjoy good emotions most of the time, while allowing negative emotions to serve their purpose now and then. By looking for the good side in everything, you’ll make the most of what life has to offer. And by periodically acknowledging what’s not working for you, you’ll keep up the motivation to work towards what you really want.
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