Let Go of the Pursuit of Happiness: All Emotions Deserve Our Love

A MINDLESS OBSESSION WITH HAPPINESS 

Frequent experiences of positive affect (contentment, joy, excitement, calm) are beneficial for a variety of health and well-being outcomes. As such, happiness is a highly valued emotion in our culture; this is very evident by fact that we are often expected to put on a smiley face even when we are experiencing other emotions. However, happiness is not always appropriate and adaptive. For instance, happiness can also make us use heuristic shortcuts and stereotypes over critical and analytical thought processes. Moreover, happiness may not be appropriate when responding to others who are in distress and call for empathetic concern over positive contagion. Furthermore, studies have found that the pursuit of happiness almost always leads to dissatisfaction and distress when not obtained. Rather, it is best to engage in behaviors that have a high probability of leading to happiness (ex. building strong interpersonal relationships, volunteering, exercise), without holding onto the expectation of acquiring happiness.

On the other hand, subjectively unpleasant emotions can be evolutionary adaptive, and are important for survival when experienced to an optimal degree and in the appropriate situations. For instance, sadness and crying signals a need for helping behavior from social support networks. Moreover, anger signals a clear need for social reparations, and anxiety signals a fight or flight response to evade dangerous situations. Although these emotions may be uncomfortable, they must not be pushed aside when they can actually be of service to us. Therefore, it would be wise to listen and appreciate all of your emotions; express them to a healthy degree when appropriate. Likewise, it is important to understand that happiness can be beneficial, but not necessary to be put on a pedestal.

THE COSTS OF EMOTIONAL SUPPRESSION

Emotional suppression is an emotion-regulation strategy by which the person actively inhibits the expression of unwanted emotions. Chronic suppression of negative emotions is common in cultures where positive emotions are deemed the only appropriate emotion to exhibit in the public sphere. While this strategy may be adaptive in some contexts such as when completing tasks that require cognitive concentration, public speaking, building professional networks, and managing healthy degrees of anger during conflict resolution, it can be highly detrimental when employed long-term. For instance, emotional suppression can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels, while decreasing memory function. In extreme cases of emotional dissociation (a coping strategy for trauma where the individual completely cuts themselves off from all emotions) can lead to an unfortunate myriad of after effects such as nightmares, intrusive images and thoughts, and auditory hallucinations. Furthermore, it can be dangerous to ignore adaptive emotions such as anxiety and anger in certain social and environmental situations. The chronic inability to feel negative emotions and use them for their advantages can lead to other detrimental coping strategies which help to blunt emotions, such as substance abuse, self-harm, and addiction. The culture of emotional suppression is truly killing us all. In a similar vein, the culture of “forced positive thinking” must be better informed of the costs of suppressing negative emotions and thoughts.

THE OTHER PATH: A MINDFUL WELCOMING OF EMOTIONS

In mindfulness meditation, we practice the skill of observing arising emotions with acceptance. Instead of pushing an undesired emotion away, we practice saying “oh hello there emotion,” while sensing our breath and body sensations. When we become skilled at doing this, we are then able to 1) listen to the presented emotions without judgement and criticism, 2) regulate these emotions using a healthful method if necessary (e.g. with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, re-appraisal strategies) and 3) respond with appropriate actions that the emotion calls for (e.g. problem solving, evading dangerous situations, preventing anticipated problems and conflicts, communicating concerns). The more we practice, the more we are able to call up mindfulness skills in our everyday life off of the meditation cushion. As a more adaptive way to process and utilize emotions, mindfulness meditation is health protective of dissociative disorders, substance use disorders, and affective disorders. Better yet, it is extremely cost effective; requiring no fancy equipment but our breath and bodies themselves. Please see the meditation tab for mindfulness meditation guides!

References:

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Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives on Psychological Science6(3), 222-233.

Levitt, J. T., Brown, T. A., Orsillo, S. M., & Barlow, D. H. (2004). The effects of acceptance versus suppression of emotion on subjective and psychophysiological response to carbon dioxide challenge in patients with panic disorder. Behavior therapy, 35(4), 747-766.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.

Roberts, N. A., Levenson, R. W., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Cardiovascular costs of emotion suppression cross ethnic lines. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 70(1), 82-87.

Srivastava, S., Tamir, M., McGonigal, K. M., John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2009). The social costs of emotional suppression: a prospective study of the transition to college. Journal of personality and social psychology, 96(4), 883.