Over the last twenty years or so our culture has become besotted with the concept that happiness is contingent on having positive thoughts. The pursuit of this belief drives many people to think something is wrong with them. The irony is that this very belief creates even more unhappiness. Many of us have been acculturated since childhood to love happy endings.
Unfortunately, life often hands us lemons and we can’t always make lemonade out of them by simply thinking positive thoughts. In fact a certain degree of negativity allows for self reflection, allowing us to look at a problem from different perspectives.
A body of research focused on “defensive pessimism” has shown that we need pessimistic thoughts to navigate life in a balanced way. Many things we value bring a wide range of feelings.
You can have a wonderful partner, but unless he’s a robot, there will be times when he/she disappoints you, and conflicts will rise. All my happily ever thoughts did not stop me from getting divorced.
A job may bring great satisfaction, but inevitably something may happen, like pay cuts or termination. Good health can be disrupted by minor or major illnesses.
Repeatedly filling your head with positive thoughts and images may be a step in the right direction, but life is not that simple.
In fact trying to avoid unpleasant feelings often gives them more of a foothold. For example consider this analogy: “There’s a pink elephant standing in the middle of your room, but I don’t want you to think about him”. I would bet that you are having a hard time not conjuring up that elephant. I have discovered that whenever I struggle with something, it takes more of a foothold.
So does this mean that you should not attempt to engage in more positive types of thoughts and emotions? Absolutely not! But do consider making space for unpleasant feelings.
Become more aware of your thoughts and what you do about them. Becoming more “mindful” allows us to become more adept at using acceptance or action to solve our problems. A flexible mind gives us the opportunity to bounce back from life’s challenges. And that just might make us feel happier.
Loretta LaRoche writes the Get a Life column for the Patriot Ledger.