Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Why Recording Happiness Every Day Could Make You Miserable

A social-media phenomenon may be asking too much of us.

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I am an avid gratitude practitioner and an advocate for mental-health promotion, so you might think I’d be the last person to critique an effort to increase gratitude and inspire greater happiness. But precisely because I care so much about mental health, and about the connection between mental health and social media, I have to say something critical about the social media phenomenon, #100happydays.

The idea behind #100happydays is that we’re all too busy to recognize that we can be happy 100 days in a row. By recording your happy moments on Facebook, Twitter, or via emails to the campaign, you can do a little happiness cultivation, noticing what makes you happy, metaphorically feeding those things, and increasing your happiness yield.

While I thoroughly support the idea of cultivating gratitude for moments in life that we might be too busy to recognize, I’d argue that we’re simply too human to be happy 100 days in a row. Happy-100-days-in-a-row is a tall order. Sure, the campaign is about finding that one moment in a day, and not necessarily the whole day.

But, for many, that one moment isn’t enough to outweigh the rest.

For someone struggling with depression, that struggle clouds even the best of moments. Searching for that one moment may come to feel like an exercise in futility, like more work than it’s worth. That isn’t saying that it isn’t worth it; just that trying to do so for 100 days in a row doesn’t acknowledge that, at times that are very real, it might just not be possible to find it—especially if the factors contributing to depression are deeply entrenched, such as poverty or chronic, debilitating illness.

For someone who lives with anxiety, creating a project of finding happy moments could be good—this exercise is actually a component of some very effective therapies—but it could also be an entry to a downward spiral. With the guidelines for #100happydays stating that participants should include photographs representing their happy moments, London Telegraph writer Radhika Sanghani shared how #100happydays made her feel worse, as she felt forced to find photograph-worthy moments daily. Sanghani’s story made me think that someone dealing with anxiety could get stuck trying to find the perfect moment—and then trying to find the time to post it on Facebook—and miss the point of the exercise entirely.

But even for people who are, at least for the moment, on an even keel, sorting through our days for one happy moment whitewashes the reality of our days, which are sometimes mundane, sometimes very difficult, and more often involving a wide array of feelings.

Let me share a personal example:

I can, right now, list off a slew of things that made me unhappy just yesterday. There would be a whole section focused on parenting (annoyance with a toddler who’s practicing saying No; stress about the toddler biting daycare classmates; frustration with the toddler biting me...). Then there would be items about the state of the world (war; injustice; no solutions...). I’d dedicate a portion of the list to poor choices I made (cookie butter; watching a scary movie about flying two weeks before a long trip; staying up too late...). I won’t go into my worries about people I love, anxiety about upcoming transitions, and anxiety about...anxiety; that list would be too long.

One average day of my life is full of emotions. Held at the same time as all of the unhappy feelings are the few really happy moments, including one takes-the-cake moment...

If offered the opportunity, would I call yesterday a "happy day"? Whether or not the day as a whole qualified, would I even want to share that one happiest moment publicly? Would my happiness really grow if I wrote down that moment of wonder? And would I really become a happier person by chronicling it?

Blogger Yume Delgato, writing on Thought Catalog, addressed some of these questions. she wrote:

"[T]his obsession with pushing positivity into the public forum overlooks a more fundamental reality: The human experience is inherently dualistic. To focus on the happy to the exclusion of the sad is to do a disservice to both facets of human emotion—we appreciate joy and sorrow in part because we understand them in relationship to each other. To manufacture emphasis on one over the other is to distort reality.”

Delgato’s words ring true for me. In an up-and-down day, within an up-and-down life, sharing one happy moment contributes to creating an illusion of perfection that doesn’t reflect reality. The nuance of happiness—namely, that it isn’t something you can always grab onto and hold—can’t always be expressed with just one moment.

That said…

My happy moment yesterday was something I did think about sharing publicly, because it so touched my heart. It was even something I could’ve photographed, or manufactured a related image of it after the fact. But when it came down to it, it wasn’t something I wanted to share in a brief statement accompanied by a hashtag.

The thing that brought me joy and peace, amid the biting, tantruming, and food-throwing, the war and the cookie butter guilt was sitting outside with my son, looking up at the sky, singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” It is precisely because of all of the unhappy moments—the ones I’ve listed above and the ones I care not to share—that this moment was so precious.

And, now it is today, another in a string of hundreds. If I am so lucky to be granted another moment like that one, I will aim to see it for what it is—part of the wrinkly, stained, black, white, and gray fabric of life.

 

Copyright 2014 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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