Have you ever noticed that the more we strive for happiness, the more miserable we are? Or that when we try to think only positive thoughts, we become acutely aware of our negative thoughts?
It seems that our effort to pursue happiness only make happiness more elusive. This phenomenon is known as the Happiness Trap and is the title of an excellent book by Dr Russ Harris.
Happiness is a feeling located at one end of a spectrum, and its polar opposite is sadness. A common belief is that we can pursue positive feelings and block out negative feelings.
This is what people are doing when they say “just think positive”, “look on the bright side” or “it’s not that bad”. While these sayings may be well-meaning, they perpetuate the mistaken belief that we should be happy all the time.
Now I’m all for positive thinking, but not as a tool to bypass our uncomfortable feelings.
Happiness is just a feeling, and all feelings are subject to change. No feeling is permanent.
In yoga philosophy, the only thing that’s abiding and unchanging is consciousness, everything else (thoughts and feelings) are just waves on the surface of the ocean. Yoga philosophy also states that the root cause of our suffering is our attachment to impermanent things (e.g. happiness).
Yogis believe that chasing after happiness is a short cut to misery.
Yet look online or in the media, and there’s so much pressure to be positive and happy. Toxic positivity is like the new diet culture and just as damaging to our sense of self.
It’s a trap when we believe that everyone else is happy and we’re the anomaly for feeling miserable. This belief adds guilt and shame to the mix and amplifies our suffering. Most people aren’t as happy, confident, or have their shiz together as we think they are.
Putting on a ‘happy face’ has become a cultural norm, even when the person behind the mask is suffering inside. I see this all the time at yoga. People greeting me with their happy front while intuitively I can feel their pain and suffering.
So Colleen, if you’re not happy right now, it’s perfectly ok. Take the pressure off yourself and realise that you’re normal. I’m not happy all the time, and it’s not my goal either.
As humans, we’re meant to feel the full spectrum of emotions, yet we try to exclude the negative end and chase the positive. This is known as bypassing, and we all do it.
You see, we have limited opportunity (and skill if you ask me) at dealing with our negative feelings, so we just suppress them instead. But suppressing them doesn’t make them go away – it just buries the feelings deep in our subconscious mind where we experience them as tension and anxiety.
Here’s a common scenario.
You’re at work, and someone makes a comment that gets under your skin. Your heart beats faster, you clench your jaw, and your belly tightens. But it’s not appropriate to express your anger by yelling or punching your desk, so you suck it up and get on with it.
When you get home you might still be pissed but rather than hitting the punching bag, going for a run or talking it out, you pour a drink and watch Netflix to forget the day’s drama.
Daily micro frustrations and disappointments that aren’t expressed, end up stored in our body and subconscious mind.
And some of us are hoarders of this stuff!
The emotions that we don’t express are stored in the body as muscle tension.
Opposites are everywhere in the world, Yin and Yang, night and day, inhale and exhale, yet when it comes to our emotions, we have very little tolerance for the negative. It’s like we’re holding our breath, forgetting to exhale.
Ironically, when we learn to acknowledge and express our negative emotions, we expand our capacity to experience positive emotions too. Because when we numb, block or avoid ANY emotion, it reduces our ability to feel ALL emotions, including happiness.
There’s nothing wrong with feeling angry, jealous, sad or guilty. Denying our negative feelings is denying reality and will only hurt us in the long run. Instead of denying negative emotions, we can find healthy ways to express emotions rather than storing them.
My favourite techniques for expressing emotions are:
- shaking my body
- stomping my feet
- Non-Linear Movement
- punching/kicking a bolster
- yelling/screaming (I do this underwater when I’m swimming so no-one thinks I’m weird)
- talking (I’m not a big talker but it works well for extroverts to discharge their emotions).
Feeling our feelings (including the negative ones) is the key to healing.
If the conventional approach to seeking happiness is making you miserable, perhaps it’s time to look at things differently?
If you’re interested in a bottom-up approach to emotional healing, then you may want to join me for a 7-month deep-dive next year where we integrate our emotions and turn our wounds into wisdom and grace. The doors to Yoga Alchemy will open at the end of November.