There is pressure to be happy. Even one of the most well-known phrases in The Declaration of Independence is the right for “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” One of my favorite quotations when I was younger was the one by Abraham Lincoln that “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Growing up, my parents promoted this idea too, that all it takes is convincing yourself that you are happy. But, what if I am not happy? Is there something wrong with my mind if I can’t make myself happy? Do I have to try to be happy all the time? If something sad happens, should I respond paradoxically by smiling?
In the research study “Can seeking happiness make people unhappy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness“, Mauss et al (published in 2011*, Emotion) found that the more value people place on happiness, the less happy they are. I think it just means you cannot force emotions, and that trying to squeeze out happiness becomes more dissatisfying than experiencing genuine emotions.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, I learned to recognize and acknowledge emotions, happy or sad, instead of trying to fix them. In the past, trying to be happy all the time was my way of avoiding sadness as if sadness were too awful and unsafe to experience. Because I was taught to do so at a young age, I learned to hide my tears and put on a puppet smiley face so that other people would think I am happy. Yes, there are studies that smiling can increase happiness, but in my years of avoiding sadness, I became numb to true happiness too. By neglecting my human need to be sad sometimes, I also became numb to one of the most basic physical feelings–hunger.
I am not going to try to be happy. I am going to try to identify and validate my emotions. I am going to be authentic to my full range of emotions. I choose to live through it all, not with a puppet smile, but with my own true face.
*For a more complete summary of the 2011 study, see Todd Kashdan’s article “The Problem with Happiness” from Psychology Today.