What percentage of the time are you happy? 30%? 80%?
Now, what percentage of the time do you think you SHOULD be happy?
Up until fairly recently, I thought the happy to unhappy ratio in my life should be about 90/10. I thought I should be happy about 90% of the time. (I never actually quantified this, but unconsciously I assumed I should be happy the vast majority of the time).
But recently I read something that sounds maybe obvious but sort of blew my mind. It said that we can expect to experience positive emotion about 50% of the time and negative emotion about 50% of the time. About half of our day we’ll feel content, excited, loving, cheerful and about half we’ll feel bored, anxious, sad, upset, or apathetic. Same goes for weeks, months, years, etc.
Wait what? Aren’t I SUPPOSED to be happy all the time? Isn’t that the goal of life? Aren’t negative emotions the enemy? To be shunned, shut down, avoided at all costs?
As it turns out, nope.
In fact, thinking that I SHOULD be happy or experiencing positive emotion 90% of the time was causing me some serious problems. Because I wasn’t in fact happy 90% of the time, it was only about 50%.
So when I would experience disappointment, anger or sadness, I thought something was WRONG. Something needs to CHANGE. This is something that shouldn’t be, it needs to be fixed. Ideally, like RIGHT NOW! Quick! Where’s the Oreo’s? Where’s the internet to distract me?
I’ve come to realize that dealing with negative emotion poorly (or avoiding so as to not deal with it at all) causes most of our problems in life. Here’s why:
- Numbing the bad also numbs the good
- Distracting ourselves away from our anger and sadness doesn’t make those feelings go away, they just come squishing out sideways (often at not ideal times and onto people who have nothing to do with it)
- Avoiding negative emotion makes it difficult for our partner to connect with us
- Not coping with negative emotion increases anxiety and decreases our ability to self-soothe (which we know is the most loving thing we can do for our spouse)
Now that I know I can expect to experience negative emotion about 50% of the time, its no longer a crisis whenever I do. Now when I feel lonely or frustrated or exhausted I think, “Oh this? Yeah, this happens. About half the time in fact. Nothing is wrong here. Call down the guard.”
Why then is it so hard to let go of our happiness goal?
The problem is our culture is OBSESSED. WITH. HAPPINESS.
When asked what people want from life, they’ll say, “I just want to be happy” (see every Humans of New York post).
What’s more, most people cite happiness as their primary goal for their kids. In fact, Oprah said that in the 25+ years of the Oprah Show interviewing all sorts of parents from all sorts of places- they all had one thing in common- when asked what they wanted most, they all said, “I just want my kids to be happy.”
For my kids to be happy.
Heck, that’s all I want in life!
Happiness has become our measurement of a “successful life.”
We’re so lucky and blessed to live in a time and society where we have so much freedom to decide our own futures, how we spend our time and what we want to be. Centuries ago, people didn’t experience the same freedom of choice to the extent we do. If your father was a farmer, you would also most likely be a farmer, as would your kids. Success was slightly easier to measure. The rules more straight-forward.
But now? The goal isn’t to be the same thing our parents were. Our parents want us to be whatever we want, JUST BE HAPPY.
But happiness is a terrible goal because it’s not a check mark you can ever really check off. Happiness is illusive, shifting and immeasurable. You’re left thinking, “Am I happy now? How about now with this new job, am I happy? How about now with THIS partner, am I happy? How about now with this new house and new car, am I happy NOW?”
And in that 50% of the time when we aren’t happy, when we are feeling anxious, unfulfilled or lonely, we think, “Uh-oh. Something is WRONG! I’m not happy!” And since our measure of success is happiness, when we don’t feel happy, we feel like we’re failing.
This makes us unable to handle the negative and causes us to chase the many happiness counterfeits the world has to offer. Pleasure, or hits of dopamine to our brains, come in many forms and all of them become unhealthy when we reach for them every time we feel unhappy. Porn, alcohol, social media, sugar, video games- these are just a few of our society’s MANY happiness impersonators.
What to do when we don’t get our way
It is so imperative to realize that when we feel negative emotion, nothing is wrong. We’re not going to get our way about half the time.
– About half the time, we’re not going to get our way politically.
– About half the time, our kids aren’t going to behave in the way we’d like.
– About half the time, we’re not going to get our way at church.
– About half the time, we’re not going to get our way in our relationships.
These things will likely make us UNHAPPY. Then what? Fight it? Avoid it? Numb it away? OR . . . embrace it?
I’m going to argue for EMBRACING the negative.
Mmmmm, embrace it.
I’m going to argue for embracing the negative IN OUR RELATIONSHIPS.
We need a plan for not getting our way (since ya know, it’s happening about half the time anyway, might as well be prepared). We need to not panic every time we reach a disagreement in our marriage that doesn’t come with a solution because guess what? Already happening.
Over-reacting to the negative is playing out in relationships all over the world every single day. “My wife is sort of annoying, did I make the wrong choice?” “I wish my husband wouldn’t waste so much time, should I have married someone else?” “We’re fighting a lot, something is wrong.”
Now obviously, there are relationships that need to end. Abuse, addiction, infidelity- these things are real and not every relationship that is “unhappy” should stick it out. However, our expectations that we should ALWAYS be happy with our partner may be the very thing jeopardizing it.
You should be happy with your partner. About 50% of the time 😉
It has been SUCH a break through for me to realize that when Rich and I fight, it’s not really the circumstance or subject of our fighting that is causing my suffering, it is that I turn our fights into a crisis. When I tone it down and realize, “Oh yeah, we’re not always going to agree, this isn’t really a problem.” Then my head is clear and we are able to deal with our differences a million times better than when I would inwardly freak out that Rich didn’t agree with me.
When Rich has a bad day, I always have to fight the urge to make that something bigger than it needs to be. When he comes home in a bad mood, my head gravitates towards thoughts like, “Oh great, this again. Why can’t he see that he gets to choose to be at peace? He doesn’t HAVE to be upset or negative about work or politics or twitter or whatever. Why can’t he see how this is affecting US? THIS IS A CRISIS!” (don’t think I don’t catch the irony of me thinking the problem is HIM not being able to choose to be at peace in undesirable circumstances, when in fact, that same power is available to me in my undesirable circumstance. (well . . . ya know, I catch it in hindsight while writing a blog post about it)).
But on my better days, when Rich comes home in a bad mood, I am trying to gravitate towards thoughts like, “Oh, he’s in a bad mood? Yeah, that happens. About half the time. I wonder why? What is going on in his brain? He’s human. Me too. Not a crisis. Maybe he needs a hug.”
The second is MUCH BETTER. I can self-soothe myself in my own negative emotion AND extend grace for my husband’s negative emotions. It’s a much better way to live.
3 BETTER GOALS THAN HAPPINESS
So if happiness isn’t our goal in life and our relationships what should be?
I’m going to propose three alternative goals to happiness, that will paradoxically bring us much closer to increased happiness long-term even if they bring discomfort and anxiety short-term.
The end result of progress IS often happiness, but the middle and the beginning? Not so much. Progress often looks like anxiety, disappointment, and overwhelm. However, it is important to remember that the anxiety of a stagnant life avoiding distress is always worse than the anxiety of setting and accomplishing goals. Yes, even if we fail. Progress in whatever areas of life are important to you in is a much better goal than happiness.
2. Feeling all our feelings.
This may sound like a silly goal. Aren’t I going to feel my feelings no matter what? No, you’re going to avoid them, numb them and distract yourself away from them like the 21st century human being you are.
It’s important to remember when things go south for us that the very worst that can happen to us are just feelings, and we can feel feelings my friends. Our worst fears are often feelings of loneliness, despair, failure, heartache and depression, but often we reek havoc on our lives by going to extreme measures to avoid feeling these feelings. When feeling these feelings is so much better with much fewer negative repercussions than avoiding them.
So our worst fears are just feelings and on the flip side all of our wildest dreams are to feel feelings. We want our business to succeed in order to FEEL successful. We want to lose weight in order to FEEL desirable and healthy. We want an amazing marriage in order to FEEL accepted and fulfilled and loved.
And now I’ve got excellent news for you . . . those feelings are available to us regardless of our circumstances. Knowing this is the key to changing your life, but this is a topic for another day.
An excellent life goal is to feel all our feelings- not to fear them, push them away or numb them.
3. Learn to act out of the best in us.
This is another one that sounds really simple, but in practice is SO HARD. And tricky! So often the worst parts of us parade around like they are the best. Do we want to go on that service trip to actually help the needy or because we love the idea (and the Instagram pics!) of ourselves as someone who would help orphans? Do we take our spouse’s turn for the dishes because we want to help them out or because we’ll hold it over their heads for payback later?
Acting out of the best of us is hard. It involves regular self-confrontation and course correction. It involves questioning our stories and deeply held beliefs. It involves being brave when we feel nothing but fear. It involves checking in with our conscience before we speak or make decisions instead of letting our lower brains run the show.
Learning to act out of the best in us is what life is all about and most definitely a goal worth pursuing, even though, it definitely doesn’t always come wrapped in a package of happiness.
So my friends, if you are not feeling happy. If you are feeling lonely, sad, upset, or overwhelmed, perhaps nothing is actually wrong with your life. Perhaps this is just the 50% of the time that those feelings come. Perhaps we should just be kind and patient with ourselves and with our lives and not make negative emotion mean anything more than being human.
Next week, I’m going to go even deeper on the topic of embracing negative emotion with some helpful tips and tricks that help me. Stay tuned!