Why Happiness Isn’t a Pollyannaism Project


LLooking at the world around us, happiness can seem like an unattainable goal. As we enter the fourth year of a pandemic that has killed millions and continues to threaten global health and well-being, compounded by the devastating consequences of climate change, spikes in hate crimes and continued fallout from systemic oppression and inequality, there seems little reason to be happy. Indeed, results from the 2022 annual Stress in America survey indicate that a third of respondents say their stress over these challenges is “overwhelming.”

Simply ignoring or denying stress, or suppressing your negative emotions and pretending everything is fine, will not lead to lasting happiness. In most cases, negative emotions are surprisingly helpful – they provide important signals about our surroundings and can guide us to an appropriate response. For example, fear signals that you might find yourself in a potentially dangerous situation and that you should try to escape; anger can motivate you to face an injustice. Likewise, focusing too much on pursuing positive emotions like happiness can paradoxically result in less happiness. Really, too much emotion in the wrong context won’t serve you well. Recognizing, acknowledging and labeling your emotions, both negative and positive, is associated with better physical health and emotional well-being.

The key to lasting happiness is not to rid your life of negative emotions; instead, the goal is also to feel positive emotions even in the midst of difficulties. This balance can be especially difficult when times are dark. In my research, I work with people who are going through significant stress in life, such as being diagnosed with a serious illness or caring for a loved one with dementia, and I teach them skills to increase positive emotions. experience alongside negative emotions. These skills include noticing and savoring positive events, mindfulness, non-judgment, gratitude, and acts of kindness, among others. Our research has shown that practicing these skills leads to more happiness, even when life seems particularly difficult.

One of our study participants who cares for a family member with dementia described to me how she uses the positive emotional skills she learned in our program to cope with the stress of caregiving: “There are days when I just want to go jump in my car and drive and never come back. So I think, ‘OK, I’m grateful for that. I have this, I can do this. I am resourceful.’ In the past, she says, “sometimes I was so angry about my situation. Now I can be like, ‘OK, I can be mad for two minutes and then it’s done! Not all day.’

Practicing these skills works for me too. During the pandemic, I’ve noticed and savored the little things more – for example, this morning before I sat down to write, I took time to appreciate that even though it’s cold here in Chicago, the Sun is out, a welcome change from last week’s cloudiness. The sun shining won’t change any of the really big problems in the world right now, but taking a moment to notice it gives me an extra shot of positive emotion and feels better equipped to deal with the challenges that arise in my day. .

In 1867, abolitionist, feminist, and human rights activist Sojourner Truth summed up this philosophy well: “Life is an uphill battle anyway. If we laugh and sing a little while we fight the good fight of freedom, it makes everything easier. I will not allow the light of my life to be determined by the darkness that surrounds me. Rather than focusing on happiness in the face of life’s big and small challenges, follow Sojourner Truth’s advice and find the little things you can do to bring more moments of happiness each day, while recognizing that life can be an uphill battle. . Donate to an organization that feeds the hungry. Let a co-worker know you’re grateful for their help with a big project. Take a few moments to enjoy your delicious morning coffee or even just look at pictures of puppies and kittens on the internet. Intentionally seek out the moments of laughter and song that will allow the light of your life to shine, even when the world seems darkest. This is the definition of happiness.

Moskowitz is a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University and director of research at the Northwestern Osher Center for Integrative Health

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