Most people I know want to be happy. Yet, the things we think will make us happy often don’t live up to our expectations. We might experience temporary happiness but as soon as that feeling fades, we start pursuing the next thing we think will make us happy.
We can read books and articles on finding happiness. We can try positive thinking or repeat affirmations, but they often make us more miserable than we started.
This is the happiness paradox.
The Emotional Spectrum
Emotions exist on a spectrum:
- On one end, we have the positive, feel-good emotions of joy, love and happiness.
- On the other end of the spectrum are the less desirable emotions of shame, guilt, rage, grief, disappointment.
Our brains are naturally programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain, which is why we have such trouble dealing with and feeling our uncomfortable emotions. Modern culture is also programming us to seek good vibes only, and there is little conversation or education around coping with painful emotions.
Since no-one is talking about it, and there are no healthy examples to show us how to deal with our negative emotions, we suppress them and pretend everything is fine. This approach might work temporarily, but in the long term, it’s detrimental to our emotional wellbeing and, in my opinion, is behind the rising incidence of anxiety and unhappiness. This is a form of avoidance known as bypassing.
Life is a series of complementary opposites – night and day, summer and winter, hot and cold, yin and yang, inhale and exhale. We need both poles of the spectrum to experience wholeness.
Yet, in our collective wisdom, we avoid the negative emotions and cling tightly to the positive. This is like holding our breath or seeking an endless summer.
We can’t exclude one end of the continuum and avoid pain without reducing our ability also to feel positive emotions. The opposite is true, too: when we chase happiness, we become more acutely aware of our misery.
What leads to happiness?
Yoga doesn’t make us happy. Nor will getting fit, getting the promotion, finding the one or having nice things.
Happiness is an inside job that arises from our complete tolerance and acceptance of our emotional range.
The paradox is that the more we can feel, tolerate and accept the negative emotions, the more receptive we will be to experience positive emotions.
It’s the law of complementary opposites, and it’s everywhere in nature. While there are two sides to any coin, there is still only one coin. This holds true for our emotional spectrum.
Rather than experiencing our emotions as good or bad, we can reframe emotions as being on a continuum, with neither end being good or bad. We just accept what is – this is an underlying principle of yoga – acceptance.
In Yoga philosophy, when we cling to positive emotions and resist negative emotions, we will suffer.
So, in my opinion, it’s best to give up the pursuit of happiness unless we want to be miserable.
A better approach is to learn to feel, express and accept our full range of emotions. And in doing so, we might find the side effect of acceptance is contentment and happiness.
Happiness is like a Butterfly, the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder…
The Yoga of Happiness
The Yoga Sutras, written 2500 years ago, provide a framework for the evolution of our consciousness. Rather than prescribing how to be happy, the focus is on identifying and eliminating the causes of suffering (kleshas). Once we can recognise and address our mental patterns (samskaras) and start cultivating positive habits such as non-attachment, compassion, contentment and surrender, we will find the peace of mind that we seek.
It’s important to recognise, though, that happiness is an emotion and is subject to change. It is not a permanent state, and becoming attached to the attainment of happiness will cause us misery.
Thoughts and emotion are constantly in flux; they are not permanent. Grasping and clinging to positive emotions is a recipe for suffering. Instead, yoga teaches us to step back from our thoughts and feelings and become the observer or witness of our experiences.
When we’re able to become aware of our thoughts and feelings, when we can create some distance from our troubling thoughts and emotions, we enter into a more balanced or equanimous state of mind.
Having a balanced mind, a mind that is undisturbed by our fluctuating thoughts and feelings, is the goal of yoga. Some may describe this as blissful, but it is a bliss that arises from a neutral place rather than the bliss that is dependent on a temporary emotion.
How to become less miserable
- Be honest with yourself about how you feel. Many of us have been pretending we’re okay for so long that we can’t even be honest with ourselves. Honesty (Satya) is a fundamental tenet of yoga and is the first step on the path out of misery.
- Give yourself permission to feel uncomfortable and painful emotions and recognise they are normal, and every human experiences negative emotions. There is no shame in feeling depressed, angry, bitter or resentful. It’s only when we can accept how we feel that we have the opportunity to do something about it. Acceptance (Santosha) is another foundational principle of yoga.
- Find a healthy way to express your emotions. Write in a journal, talk to a friend, cry or learn to express your emotions through movement (punch a pillow, shake, stomp, move what you’re feeling). Whatever we don’t express is suppressed.
- Practice becoming aware of your emotions. Emotions can be overwhelming, but with awareness, we can slow down, take a step back and observe ourselves having an emotional experience rather than being swamped by them. When we become the observer of our experience (rather than the victim), it gives us some breathing space. The ability to witness our thoughts and emotions without attachment creates the conditions for a calm mind. The best way to develop awareness and step back and observe or emotions is through Meditation.
- Recognise that there is no magic pill or quick fix and that we probably have a bit of work to do if we’ve been suppressing our feelings for most of our lives. But once we stop storing our negative emotions and find a healthy outlet to release them, we will feel lighter, free from muscle tension, experience less anxiety and will create some space to feel more positive options, including happiness.
In this way, we can transform and alchemise our negative experiences into more positive ones. Yoga is so much more than fitness and stretching, and at Cultivate Calm Yoga, we focus on keeping the ancient tradition alive while applying it to our modern life.
Main image credit @lizzie_darden