Why Happiness Is Overrated
Years ago, I knew one of those guys who seemed to always be happy and excited. He was always a bundle of warm fuzzies. First to give you a hug. Always happy to see you. Complimented you about things that had no business being complimented. We’ll call him ‘Jon.’
Jon was like a dog, one of those rare people whose enthusiasm and unbridled joy is so unceasing that it actually becomes a little irritating at times. “Can you, just like… hate life a little?” I used to think to myself. And no, I wasn’t wearing eyeliner.
Alas, it never happened. And I felt like an asshole for having such thoughts. I was jealous. Or maybe worse: I was just a bad person.
But I never felt like a bad person for that long, because Jon was so damn fun and engaging. You couldn’t help but be lifted up by his spirits. He always wanted to know what was going on in your life. He was always encouraging. He was always happy for you and proud of you, even when you weren’t happy or proud of yourself.
I eventually just decided that Jon was one of those people who had it figured out. One of those people that the shittier parts of life seemed to pass on by. A person who somehow managed to walk between the raindrops. A person who was blessed and knew it and spent his days trying to make others feel just as great as he did.
Then one day, I walked in on him doing lines of coke off the back of a toilet.
What the fuck?
No! This guy was supposed to be the one who had it figured out! This guy was the one who was supposed to be immune to these kinds of moments of weakness! Damnit man, you were the chosen one!
It turned out, Jon was a fucking mess. His family life was a mess. His personal life was a mess. His unceasing positivity and the occasional nose candy were the only things holding him together, like raggedy pieces of duct tape and a shoestring.
And here’s what took me a long time to figure out but surprised me: Jon sucked at emotions. I know that might sound crazy — on the surface, he appeared to be what we all want to be: perfectly happy, loving and giving, always positive and encouraging, never in a dull mood. But it was true. He sucked at dealing with his emotions, and he suffered more because of it.
What Do Emotions Do Anyway?
Emotions are the result of your mind comparing your external environment to your expectations.1
The same way you feel hot and cold when you walk outside (you step into the air, your skin moderates the temperature relative to your body temperature and then sends a signal to your brain saying, “it’s hot” or “it’s cold”), your emotions do the same for complex psychological phenomena.
So you step outside, your body sends your brain the signal “it’s cold” and you run inside and get a coat. Similarly, if you come home from work and catch your husband blowing the mailman, your body sends the emotional signal to your brain which says, “What the actual fuck?” and then you divorce his ass and enjoy a massive settlement and lots of ice cream on the couch.
Emotions are designed to create strong incentives for us to take action and do something to get rid of conflict between our expectations and our environment, either by changing our environment or changing our expectations. We want alignment between the two, and we get mighty uncomfortable when they are at odds with each other. Emotions are like marriage counselors, trying to get our expectations and our environment to read out loud what they wrote down for today’s session to try and make things work.
So for instance, say you’re talking with a co-worker and they let slip that bitch Betty took credit for your awesome idea and got a raise as a result. Fucking Betty.
Chances are you’re going to feel some strong emotions like anger, jealousy, and betrayal, among others. Chances are you’re going to take some sort of action to let that bitch Betty (and/or your boss) know exactly what you think of them. Shit’s going to get real in cubicle-ville because this injustice cannot stand, man.
That anger and pain you feel is also likely to make you take a long, hard look at your workplace and your career. They’ll also probably make you a lot more vigilant in the future by virtue of the fact that you don’t want to ever feel like this again. So now you’ll do more to make sure your work gets noticed in the future. It might have been a painful experience at the time, but your emotions provoked you into dealing with the situation then and they will help you again in the future.
And that’s what makes our emotions so powerful and so useful. It doesn’t matter if they make us feel good or bad. What matters is they motivate us to take appropriate action and deal with whatever comes our way and bring balance to the force. Unlike this asshole.
Here’s the thing though: our emotions won’t help us deal with the shitty things life throws at us if they don’t match up well with the situation we find ourselves in. If I’m bored when I should be scared, or overjoyed when I should be raging pissed, then how the hell are my emotions going to help me do anything to help me cope with life, let alone survive? If your emotions don’t know what is going on, they cannot bring the tools required to fix the situation.
This is the problem with the feel-good-all-the-time-no-matter-what strategy of life. And this is why Jon ended up being such a fucking mess. Instead of engaging the right emotions in the right situations, he was trying to wallpaper over everything with a bunch of bright, sunshiney bullshit.
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How Diversifying Your Emotions Makes You a More Resilient Person
There’s a concept in psychology called “emotional diversity.”2 Emotional diversity is just what it sounds like: experiencing a variety of emotions. And it turns out that people who experience a wide variety of both positive and negative emotions are a lot better off, both mentally and physically, than people who only experience a few emotions regularly, good or bad.3
Just like a more diverse stock portfolio is more resilient to large swings in stock values, the more diverse your emotional life is, the more resilient you are to the large swings in experience that life gives you. If you’re comfortable with anger, you’ll be able to call it up at the appropriate moments and use it. If you’re comfortable with joy or guilt or grief, you’ll be able to use those when you need to as well.
A diverse emotional life isn’t just made up of a few “good” and “bad” emotions. You can also have lots of emotional subcategories, like amusement, joy, contentment, gratefulness, pride, love, hope, and anger, sadness, guilt, contempt, anxiety, disgust, embarrassment, and on and on. People with access to emotional diversity have a network of roads to get to where they need to go; people without it might only have one big highway of anger and a dirt road of sadness.
Researchers think that people who experience a wider range of these types of specific subcategories of emotions are more resilient in the face of adversity because they’re better at identifying what triggers those emotions. And if you know exactly what’s making you feel the way you feel, it’s a whole lot easier to react appropriately.
People who practice a wide range of emotions are self-aware enough to know what triggers these emotions and then act accordingly. Research has shown that self-awareness and the ability to self-label emotions has positive links to well-being4. This awareness and labelling makes people feel more in control of their lives, a huge factor in determining happiness and general well-being.
More variety in emotional experience also gives you a greater appreciation for just how transient emotions are. When you only allow yourself to feel one or two emotions all the time, you start to feel as though they are permanent (or should be permanent). The world always sucks. Life is always great. You always feel guilty because you’re a horrible person. You’re always proud because you’re narcissistic and jerk off to your own high school yearbook pictures.
When you’re stuck in these one-emotion-defines-the-world mentalities, you forget that emotions are transient superficial things that don’t necessarily mean anything.
Emotional diversity shows us that emotions come and go. If you feel angry now, that’s fine, you won’t in a few hours. If you’re happy now, that’s great, enjoy it, because the next struggle is around the corner. If you feel guilty or sad, then that’s okay too, things will look up some time in the near future.
The question is then how do we begin to diversify our emotional lives?
Becoming an Emotional Ninja
The first step in achieving greater emotional diversity: simple self-awareness. Noticing and accepting what you feel when you feel it.
This sounds so simple. So simple as to be stupid. But what you’ll likely find is that if you’ve denied a certain emotion in yourself for long enough, you’ll actually stop realizing when you’re feeling it. If you deny to yourself that you are sad for long enough, you lose the ability to recognize sadness in yourself.
I’ve talked before about identifying and unfusing from your emotions as one way to become more self-aware and to understand your emotions better. This is the next step. Learning to identify the emotion and then separating your decision-making from the emotion.
It’s the difference between wanting to punch some fucker in the face, and actually doing it. Doing it is unacceptable. Feeling like you want to is a natural human reaction (sometimes).
Practices like meditation become really useful in developing these skills: first awareness, then detachment. It’s also an aim of some treatments and practices within therapy and psychology.5 Besides the number of health benefits6 that seem to come with meditating7,8 and practicing detachment, it teaches you the ability to recognize what is going on in your mind and what you are feeling. If you stick with it long enough, you realize your emotions are just that, emotions. And they not only don’t last forever, they are a signal you can choose to listen to or to ignore when you are making your decisions. Your emotions no longer have to control your actions.
Some practices within therapy and counseling also teach you to put your feelings into words, a practice called affect labelling that has been shown to lessen the intensity of those emotions9. If you can name or label the feeling, it seems to lose its power.10
Once you unfuse your emotions from your decisions, you can experience greater depth and complexity in your emotions. For example, you might feel depressed at some point, but if you can examine that feeling more closely, you might find that you’re also angry about the thing that’s making you depressed. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Instead of just being a depressed schlub on the couch and resigning to the fact that life is meaningless—and oh, what’s the point anyway?—that anger can motivate you to do something about your situation, to not withdraw from life but rather to engage with it.
This is what being an emotionally well-adjusted person is all about. It is not about being happy or having some bubbling feeling of contentment all the time. It is about recognizing the layers of feeling going on inside you and utilizing them in ways that are helpful. Anger can lead to action. Sadness can lead to acceptance. Guilt can lead to change. Excitement can lead to motivation.
Life is not about controlling our emotions. That’s impossible. Emotions come and they go whether we want them to or not.
Life is about channeling emotions. And each emotion is almost its own skill. Like learning to fight with nunchucks and sweet-ass bo staffs and samurai swords are different skill sets within the realm of fighting, channeling each of our emotions for productive action is its own skill to be practiced and mastered through the experience of life.
And once you master them all, you become an emotional ninja, able to adapt and silently slice through any adversity life throws at you. And then maybe you skateboard through the sewers and eat a lot of pizza too.
That’s right. You thought the Ninja Turtles was just a kid’s show? Come on, man. There’s a deeper lesson there. They represent the mastery of each class of life’s emotions—Raphael is anger, Donatello is curiosity, Leonardo is insecurity, Michaelangelo is pizza.
Master them all and master yourself (hence, “Master Splinter”). Dude, where are you going? I’m serious here. Don’t hit the “back” button just yet. I’m just getting started.
You see, the pizza is a metaphor for the multilayered consumption of our own existential meaning and existence, and each emotion (read: Ninja Turtle) consumes it differently.
Fine, I’m done. Cowabunga, dude. And namaste, fuckface.
- Romm, C 2014, ‘An Equation That Predicts Happiness’, The Atlantic.↵
- Quoidbach, J, Gruber, J, Mikolajczak, M, Kogan, A, et al. 2014, ‘Emodiversity and the emotional ecosystem.’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 143, no. 6, pp. 2057–2066.↵
- Gruber, J, Kogan, A, Quoidbach, J & Mauss, IB 2013, ‘Happiness is best kept stable: Positive emotion variability is associated with poorer psychological health’, Emotion, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 1–6.↵
- Swinkels, A & Giuliano, TA 1995, ‘The Measurement and Conceptualization of Mood Awareness: Monitoring and Labeling One’s Mood States’, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 21, no. 9, pp. 934–949.↵
- Hofmann, SG 2011, An introduction to modern CBT: Psychological solutions to mental health problems, John Wiley & Sons, West Sussex, England.↵
- Powell, A 2018, ‘Harvard researchers study how mindfulness may change the brain in depressed patients’, Harvard Gazette.↵
- Carrière, K, Khoury, B, Günak, MM & Knäuper, B 2018, ‘Mindfulness-based interventions for weight loss: a systematic review and meta-analysis’, Obesity Reviews, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 164–177.↵
- Gong, H, Ni, C-X, Liu, Y-Z, Zhang, Yi, et al. 2016, ‘Mindfulness meditation for insomnia: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials’, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, vol. 89.↵
- Torre, JB & Lieberman, MD 2018, ‘Putting Feelings Into Words: Affect Labeling as Implicit Emotion Regulation’, Emotion Review, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 116–124.↵
- Lieberman, MD, Eisenberger, NI, Crockett, MJ, Tom, SM, et al. 2007, ‘Putting Feelings Into Words’, Psychological Science, vol. 18, no. 5, pp. 421–428.↵