Ask anyone new to therapy what their goal is and they’re likely to say they “just want to be happier.” Society at large seems to support this belief, too: type in “happiness” on Chapters’ website and you’ll get more than 8,500 book results. Evidently, individuals and businesses alike are somewhat obsessed with what it means to be “happy”—and what we need to do to get there.
But allow me to share a seriously unpopular opinion: happiness is kind of overrated.
Look, I like being happy just as much as the next person, but I think there’s a darker side to the pursuit of happiness that’s often overlooked. For starters, the pursuit of happiness can, ironically, lead to poorer mental health outcomes: a recent study confirmed that placing excessive emphasis on happiness reduced a person’s ability to savour positive experiences and made them more prone to experiencing depressive symptoms. (In fact, there’s a whole book about this very topic.)
From personal experience, I’ve also noticed that the more I try to be happy, the more frustrated I sometimes feel. It seems entirely invalidating to tell myself to be happy when, in reality, I just want to be sad and take a nap.
And I mustn’t fail to acknowledge how elusive the concept of “happiness” is in the first place: how do I know if I've achieved something that’s based on so many confusing and contradictory constructs? One minute “happiness” means striving to achieve my goals, the next it’s about having a work-life balance. One day I’m told I’ll be happy if I’m a size 2, the next I’m encouraged to embrace body positivity.
The point is: trying to achieve something as ineffable as happiness is like trying to explain what it’s like to be in your own skin; it’s a totally personal, private experience with no real reference point.
So, allow me to explain why we should appreciate some of the not-so-popular emotions that we spend so much time trying to get rid of...
1. Sadness protects and connects.
I associate sadness with shutting down and empathizing. It contributes to our desire to sleep for 12 hours after a breakup, seek down-time after a rough day, or donate to a cause after seeing an upsetting documentary. Indeed, sadness and compassion are closely aligned given that compassion involves connecting with someone’s suffering and having a desire to alleviate it.
While many of us, naturally, dislike being sad, I think its suppressive function is extremely important. I'm reminded of people with go-go-go mentalities who end up working 80 hours a week and eventually burn out… and thank goodness they do! If sadness is associated with the shutting down of our brains and bodies, it can be seen as a very productive emotion in times of excessive stress. If we weren't capable of falling into bouts of depression, I bet there’d be a hell of a lot more people getting heart attacks in their thirties. As RuPaul has said, "Catching a cold is your body's way of saying, 'Bitch, you need to sit yo ass down.'" I feel that this is precisely why we need sadness, too.
Plus, you know when you have a cold you and start realizing just how much you took your unclogged nostrils for granted (…no? Just me?)? Well, sadness gives us the ability to know when we are happy and truly appreciate it.
Finally, imagine all of the beautiful creations that wouldn't exist in the world if we didn't have sadness. As writer Christopher Zara writes in this Huffington Post piece, "Van Gogh painted The Starry Night while in emotional torment; Lennon and McCartney forged their creative partnership following the death of their respective mothers; Milton penned Paradise Lost after losing his wife, his daughter, and his eyesight... These celebrated artists chose not to recoil in passive suffering. Instead, they turned their sorrow into something the world would cherish."
2. Guilt holds us accountable.
I define guilt as an emotion that occurs when we’ve broken our own moral code. When we say something out of line, snap back at an innocent employee, or yell at our kids for, well, just being kids, guilt is what follows. And thank goodness! If we didn’t feel guilt, we wouldn’t feel compelled to make amends, check our behaviours, and change accordingly.It is precisely because of their inability to feel guilt that sociopaths and narcissists are so bad at forming successful intimate relationships; their sense of grandiosity makes it so hard to recognize when they’ve hurt someone that just keep repeating the same harmful behaviours.
Nonetheless, I’m always sure to tell my patients about the difference between guilt/healthy shame and toxic shame. Whereas guilt is, “I did a bad thing but I know I’m still a good person,” toxic shame is, “I did a bad thing and am therefore a bad person in my core.” Unsurprisingly, feelings of intense shame have been associated with increased anxiety, depression, difficulties taking healthy risks, and relapses in problematic behaviours. So, the important thing is to notice if/when you’re graduating from healthy guilt to toxic shame and take a self-compassion break.
3. Anger sets boundaries and motivates.
Anger is what tells us we’ve had enough and that we should DO something about it! Do you think Rosa Parks refused to let a white passenger sit in her seat because she was happy? Or that the Stonewall Riots in 1969 were the result of the LGBTQ++ community feelings too much joy? Hell. No. These influential moments were the result of anger that was channeled in ways that would help change history.
As paradoxical as it may sound, anger also plays an important role in maintaining healthy relationships. It’s what prevents us from being taken advantage of and walked all over so that we’re more likely to experience equality in the relationship versus a dominant/submissive dynamic. This is precisely why a couple who tells me they "never have disagreements" is almost concerning to me; I can't help but wonder who is suppressing themselves to avoid conflict.
4. Fear keeps us safe.
Simply put, anxiety occurs when your brain detects a real or perceived threat, which triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response. While most people detest their anxiety, it serves an incredibly important evolutionary function. I mean, imagine what would have happened if our hunter-gatherer ancestors weren’t able to detect threat very well! “Hey lion that’s about to eat me, I really like the colouring of your coat, it’s so—” NOW YOU’RE DEAD.
While we might not have to deal with meeting a lion unexpectedly in today’s world, anxiety is still important. It’s what motivates us to work hard on that presentation we’re giving tomorrow, keep our eyes on the road when we hit a patch of ice, and frantically update our resume after our friend gets fired. Sure, anxiety isn’t fun in the moment, but we mustn’t fail to give it a little bit of credit, too.
5. People who are happy all the time are honestly kind of annoying…
Have you ever been feeling really down/angry/anxious and vented about it to someone, only to hear something along the lines of, “But don’t forget all the things you do have and how great your life is!!!” #Blessed #LiveLaughLove #AllYouNeedIsLove!!!!!
DAMN IT, CAROL, I JUST WANT YOU TO FEEL BAD FOR ME OKAY!!!!!!!!!!!
The thing is, when we meet our emotions where they’re at and do the same for others, it can be way more bonding and stress-reducing than trying to force happiness.
The Bottom Line
Our society is very good at categorizing things as “good” or “bad.” Kale good, chips bad. Busy good, rest bad. Happy good, sad bad. Obviously, life is much more complicated than this in reality. And although it’s not always fun to experience sadness, guilt, anger, or fear, the importance of reframing these emotions as helpful protectors that are just doing their best can be an important first step to mental strength.
From there, practice getting out of the habit of defining your emotions as either “good” or “bad." Even just saying you’re experiencing an uncomfortable emotion can be a helpful reframe. As we therapists say, approach your emotions with a soften, soothe, and allow mentality.