Why do we want to limit our emotions?
“We are possibly not far away from eradicating a major cultural force, a serious inspiration to invention, the muse behind much art and poetry and music. We are wantonly hankering to rid the world of numerous ideas and visions, multitudinous innovations and meditations. We are right at this moment annihilating melancholia.”
Eric G. Wilson
Reading passages like this make me feel a bit more normal. I don’t mind sadness but I keep reading, over and over and over, people telling me to be happy. Think positive thoughts. That being happy is the most important thing in life. And that if you aren’t happy, immediately stop those bad thoughts and focus on the positive. I just don’t know if that’s good, all the time, and feel like a freak when I have a conversation with a chipper little stranger or read a happy blog. Which is one of my problems with the happiness movement, how cultish it is. It’s what Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in Bright-Sided after she was diagnosed with cancer. As if she HAD to be grateful to have cancer. Whatever mindset an individual wants to have is fine, inasmuch as I don’t think anyone has the right to make you think differently, but the ferocity with which proponents of happiness push it on other people is alienating. Especially in troubling times, when no one needs to have the guilt piled on top of other issues.
I think it’s important to note that feeling sad or angry, doesn’t mean you are miserable. It just means there’s something that is currently making you sad or angry. There are plenty of good reasons to be down and we shouldn’t resist or ignore them. Sadness doesn’t have to be negative. It’s simply an acknowledgement of reality in some instances. Kierkegaard said he “felt bliss in melancholy and sadness.”
It’s part of life. It’s necessary and it helps us think and grow. When my head is aching from a migraine, I wish pain didn’t exist. But we know what happens without pain. People never learn where their limits are and can’t tell when they’re hurting themselves. Many people with congenital insensitivity have difficult lives with a high risk of disease or death. Pain, like fear and sadness, makes us aware of our situation. On the other hand, happiness is a mental state telling us that everything is fine. That’s not the best mindset for learning or analyzing. When happy, we think the world around us is harmless and safe and don’t concern ourselves with it because we don’t need to concentrate on anything to make it better or assume everything will work out (as Barbara Ehrenreich discusses in relation to the economic crash). We, as animals, want to avoid sadness because it means something isn’t going right. In our history it could have meant death was around the corner. If a family member died, it possibly meant whatever killed him or her would be coming for us next, whether it was illness, war, or a predator. Our reaction would have been to get out of that situation. But to do that, you need to carefully analyze what went wrong so you know what to avoid. Sadness and anxiety – generally thought of as negative feelings – promote deep thinking.
In a study relating weather to mood, Adam Alter found that “sunshine dulls the mind to risk and thoughtfulness.” because it’s associated with happier moods. When happy we don’t scan the world for ways to change how we feel. We want stay in that place.
“the rainy days induced a generally negative mood state, which the shoppers subconsciously tried to overcome by grazing the environment for information that might have replaced their dampened sad moods with happier alternatives.”
It makes sense that when we feel down, we try to figure out how to change that. It’s the starting position that’s so important. When things are good, what needs to improve? That’s understandable. But when things aren’t good and we convince ourselves it’s not so bad, where’s the motivation to actually change your situation? We are putting our brains in a state that doesn’t match reality and doesn’t promote action. We are trying to convince ourselves that everything is good, to relax and turn down awareness, when we should be acting to fix the current problem.
The thing about unhappiness that people seem to forget is that it’s not permanent. No feeling is permanent. But beyond trying to figure out if it’s feasible to be happy all or most of the time or not, I question the desire to want to be.
Even the greatest minds suffer from doubt and they fully felt it, but those doubts won’t necessarily stop you. In a letter to a friend, Charles Darwin let his self-doubt and pessimism shine through, “But I am very poorly today & very stupid & hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders.” It’s hard to be more bleak than saying we live only to make blunders. But in no way did these thoughts prevent Darwin from making a massive contribution to the world. Someone who, at least occasionally, thought of himself as very stupid wrote one of the most important books in biology. It’s even likely these doubts helped as much as they hurt. Because having doubts forces you to turn a more critical eye to your work. The desire to brush off uncertainty and be proud at every decision and characteristic and piece of work you complete might lower the quality even if it does boost productivity.
We need to let ourselves feel everything or we risk, not only failing to uncover great ideas, but our mental health. Clinical psychologist, David Barlow, has done research that suggests exposure therapy for anxiety disorders only works in specific cases. Research on more complex anxiety disorders reveals that “what patients have to be exposed to is not the external things they fear in the environment, but their tendency to avoid their own emotional experience.” The problem isn’t having negative emotions, it’s that people do everything they can to avoid them, thus never learning where they come from, what they’re for, and how to deal with them.
I feel I’ve written enough, and probably too much for most people. But I think these next two passages do really well to explain a few concerns with the happiness obsession. The first of which is so important, but so frequently ignored.
“In earlier research, she found that people who place a great value on being happy actually have more mental health problems, including, sadly enough, depression. In a follow-up experiment, she found that reading a newspaper article singing the praises of happiness led them to actually feel less happy…”
“Depression (as I see it, at least) causes apathy in the face of this unease, lethargy approaching total paralysis, an inability to feel much of anything one way or another. In contrast, melancholia (in my eyes) generates a deep feeling in regard to this same anxiety, a turbulence of heart that results in an active questioning of the status quo, a perpetual longing to create new ways of being and seeing.
Our culture seems to confuse these two and thus treat melancholia as an aberrant state, a vile threat to our pervasive notions of happiness — happiness as immediate gratification, happiness as superficial comfort, happiness as static contentment.”
Here are a couple articles with some great ideas and usually with links to good books/papers. I may write more later, but a blog isn’t the place for a 2,000 word exploration.
Society fear sadness
A few benefits of sadness (memory, judgement, motivation)
A full life is embracing the difficult
A couple more benefits (can’t link to the original article, sorry)
The link between creativity and mental illness
Happiness Vs. Meaning. They don’t always line up.
note: I DO NOT mean to suggest that happiness is bad. I’m aware of the positive effects of happiness and think genuine happiness is one of the nicest things in life. But life is hardly so straight forward as to maintain happiness constantly. My problem comes from trying to spin every event in a positive light and running from issues that need to be dealt with in order to move forward in life. For instance, being too scared to try something isn’t a disease of fear. It’s the result of the unreasonable goal of never having to feel it and hiding from it. So what I’m writing about is a rather empty type of happiness. A happiness that takes some convincing rather than one that spontaneously envelopes us, like a moment with friends tends to evoke.