Learning to Be Sad Can Increase Your HappinessJanuary 19 , 2012

A key component of being happy is learning how to manage our negative emotions: sadness, fear, anger, worry, guilt, grief, frustration, and all those other emotions that make us feel icky.  And let’s be clear; when I say “manage” negative emotions, I don’t mean “squash down into oblivion so that you can pretend like everything is rosy and be a fake, plastic kind of happy.”

We all know that if you are going to live and love in this world, you are going to feel negative emotions.  You have to give yourself permission to be human and not push away all these experiences, many of which will teach you valuable things and allow you to grow and learn.

But there’s a difference between being authentically disappointed that you weren’t chosen for that promotion/team/party/friendship, and expanding that disappointment into a story that you are worthless and no one ever liked you and no one ever will, etc. etc.  (We’ve all been there; don’t deny it!).

I’ll be talking about managing negativity for the next couple months.  To kick it off, I want to share some top-level ideas.

Be Aware

Noticing when we are in a negative emotional state is the first step; if you are not aware, how can you change?  Often when we are feeling negative emotions, they bubble along in the background.  When this happens, we sometimes react on autopilot and snap at loved ones or ruminate incessantly.  This keeps us mired in that negative space.  There is nothing you can do about your negativity if you don’t notice it.  So make a practice of checking in with your own emotional state on a regular basis.

Let’s check in now.  What are you feeling at this moment?

If you often fall into negative emotional space without noticing, spend a couple weeks actively checking in.  Set your phone alarm or outlook alert to go off every hour and see what you are feeling.  Or post little sticky notes around your house, car and on computer screen.  Each time you notice one, check in.  When I did this exercise a few months ago, I realized how often I had anxious feelings and was tightening my shoulders and catching my breath.  Awareness is the first step.

Name That Tune (or Emotion)

Brain scans show that verbal information almost immediately diminishes the power of negative emotions by engaging the thinking side of the brain.  Once you notice that you are in a negative space, call it out.  Pause and figure out which negative emotion you are feeling (is it disappointment or frustration?  Anxiety or nervousness?). Verbalize it to yourself or a friend. Consciously think, or say, “I’m feeling anxious,” “I’m feeling angry,” or “I’m feeling sad.”

After you name the emotion, pause for a minute and see what it feels like.  Where do you notice it in your body?  Is it butterflies in your stomach?  Is it tightness in the chest?  Are your muscles tensing?  What happens as you bring your attention to it, does it change?  Does it become more intense or less?  Whatever you feel, give it some space to be there, even if only for a few moments.

Let It Be

Often when we notice a negative emotion, we move to squash it as soon as we can. We react, “I don’t want to feel this! Go away!”  But the research is clear: when we suppress our negative emotions, our misery multiplies and (counter-intuitively) it inhibits our ability to feel positive emotions.  But when we give those negative emotions some space to be felt and to grow and change, it opens up the path for positive emotions to flow too.

Make a Decision

Once we notice, name and allow the negative emotion to exist, then we can decide what we want to do.  We may WANT to stay in that space for a while to be angry or sad.  That’s fine.  (You might take yourself away, however, to not inflict your own emotional pain on innocent bystanders or family members).

At some point, seconds or hours or days later, you will want to get back to a neutral or positive space.  We’ll be spending the next couple months going through the tools of how to move through this negativity and provide a healthy path to getting back to positive.  We’ll kick this off next week by categorizing the kind of negativity we are feeling – whether it is gratuitous or necessary.  This initial evaluation will set us on the best path forward.

BTW, If you have thought about inviting friends to join you on this list, this is a good time to do it.  What I’ll be sharing over the next couple months is powerful and worth taking some time with.  And it will be much easier to start at the beginning!

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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