A rant about positive thinking as the way to happiness: Why it’s incomplete and even dangerous

Do you ever notice the themes that come up for you in your life? The little coincodences, idiosyncrasies and patterns that emerge? I notice that often times what I’m working on, others are working on, or what one client comes to me with, four more will follow.

The past week or so, the theme has sounded something like this:

“I’m so sick and tired and taking care of my body. It’s so exhausting. When can I just move past this into happiness?

If I’ve talked to you in the past week, chances are you’ve said something like this. And to be honest, I recently said something like this in a recent blog post. Sometimes taking care of our bodies sucks. Sometimes, dealing with our past and all our trauma and negativity feels like it will suck the life out of us. Sometimes, we just want a break, dangit!

[Insert temper tantrum here.]

There’s this idea out there that we should all be happy and that happiness is the goal. And I have and would continue to argue that happiness is a good goal. But I think that the ways in which we’ve been going about it are sometimes misguided.

There’s a popular and pervasive idea out there that if we just think positively, we’ll be happy. That happiness is nothing more than eradicating negative thinking and dark emotions by repeating a positive dialogue and writing down an affirmation some magical number of times.

But do you know what that approach sounds like to me? Putting whipped cream on top of a pile of crap. And that’s just gross.

Yoga, and now science, tells us that when we try to avoid something that is part of us, we make it stronger, not weaker. The yoga sutras out lines the major causes of suffering, called kleshas. Each of the kleshas can lead to anguish like experiencing negative thoughts. Chapter two, sutra eleven of the yoga sutras says, “dyhanaheyaha – tadvrittayaha, meaning that avoidance of our negative patterns and thoughts will lead to their increase. Rather than avoid, seek to understand what is there through deep reflection and meditation. Simply put, if you try to avoid your sources of suffering, you’ll probably make them worse.

Try something for me. Set a timer, and for the next 60 seconds, don’t think about a pink elephant. If you think about that pink elephant once, you fail. Ready, go.

* * * sometime after you try really hard * * *
So how did that go? Probably not so well, right? This is why simply thinking positively isn’t enough, and science is showing the same thing. Yes, if we want to be happy we need to make choices that increase our happiness. We need to shift our perspective from the negative (for example, by complaining less) to the positive things in our life. But it is dangerous to skip the steps where we both recognize that healthy humans experience a full range of emotions, some of them not-so-pleasant, and that we can learn from our negative emotions by reflecting on them without linking ourselves to them. What usually happens when we are sad is that we don’t sit with it consciously – instead, we link our worth to that emotion by telling ourselves a story about what the sadness means or who it makes us. This actually distracts us from having an conscious emotional release.  So rather than feeling sad and thinking, “Oh my god, I feel sad. This means I might get depressed, which means I’ll never be happy, and no one will want to hang out with me, and I’m not good enough, atc, ad nauseum,” (That’s what my story sounds like) try, “Okay, I have some sadness. I will pay attention. Hey sadness, what is it you want me to learn?

You are human. So am I. Which means that our body thinks through emotions, some of them pleasant, some of them not so pleasant. There is violence, hunger, danger, mass extinctions and a thousand other awful things happening in our world every day. If we didn’t feel some of that, especially those things that happened to us, then something would be wrong. Positive thinking would say, “Yeah, that sucks that those people died, but I’m going to swallow my grief and focus on my pretty new shoes which will walk me to happiness.”

Um, no?

Happiness is not some thing that happens when we set everything in the proper order. Happiness is something we cultivate by becoming comfortable with life’s changes, whether we perceive those changes as “good” or “bad.”

In order to cultivate positive emotions (more than just happiness, positive emotions include joy, gratitude, contentment and awe) we need to learn to be comfortable with all that life throws at us. Yoga asks us to sit and to be present with whatever it is that is happening. If you are sad, let the sadness be in your body so you can pay attention to it. Not indefinitely, mind you, because the nature of emotions is changeable, but just long enough to allow it to transform.  Ask it questions, learn from it.

If we have a behavioral pattern of letting our mind run wild every time we experience negative emotions, we will create thought patterns that keep us unhappy. Instead, we need to recognize uncomfortable emotions for what they are – physical sensations in the body that serve a purpose, feelings that will surely change because they are changeable, and temporary. Emotions are like a wave. Waves are just energy in the water working itself out.

The path through difficult emotions to happiness is standing atop of a surf board and riding it out.

When we can do this, when we can see our struggles for what they are – temporary fluctuations in an ever changing life – and learn that happiness doesn’t have to mean the complete cessation of all pain or suffering, then we have a firmer foundation to start on. Then we can recognize our crap piles and release them, building back up with sweetness so that the whipped cream makes sense.

If you don’t know how to start, give me a call. I’ve been working with my teacher, a yoga teacher and positive psychology coach, to develop a detailed plan for helping us manage difficult emotions, find contentedness, and cultivate happiness. I’d be happy to share this with you in the private sessions I offer.

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