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Stop Preaching Happiness, Gratitude, and Positive Affirmations

Can preaching happiness perpetuate unhappiness?

David Bartus/Pexels
Source: David Bartus/Pexels

We grow up receiving very distinct messages, both overtly and subliminally, that the most sought after state is one of “happiness,” a “positive attitude,” and eternal “gratitude.”

Our society supports these ideas and ideals. Take a look at all the posts on social media that list 5, 10, 15, etc. ways to happiness and those that depict individuals who aren’t successful at achieving “happiness” as essentially depressed, stuck, and hopeless. It is a sure way to perpetuate unhappiness.

There are other insinuations regarding how we should recognize how fortunate we are by keeping gratitude journals, looking in the mirror every day and affirming how beautiful and terrific we are, and idyllically relishing the lives we lead. A lot easier to say, much harder to internalize and feel at the gut level.

We Instinctually Think and Feel Negatively

All of these sentiments are helpful and relevant for those individuals who can readily practice and embrace them. There are flaws in preaching them because they are counter to how we think, feel, and function as human beings. Our negativity bias and challenge with staying in the present moment compels many of us to regret, fear, worry, and spiral into thinking and feeling negatively.

It leaves in its path individuals who feel as if there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Those who become sad, frustrated, and disappointed because they cannot rid themselves of thoughts and feelings that they perceive as getting in their way, no matter how hard they try. They feel ineffective because they are not successful at reaching these ideal states of thinking, feeling, and being.

I am working with a teen who is extremely fearful of being “unhappy” at college in the fall. She is frustrated that she isn’t as “happy” as her peers to receive her acceptance into the college she hoped for. She was also sad that she couldn’t fully connect with the positive feelings she should be having about going off to college. She criticized herself for not being able to be “grateful enough” for being given this incredible opportunity.

She heard the same sentiments expressed repeatedly by family and friends, “think positive thoughts,” “be grateful that you got into such an impressive school,” and “be happy because you’ll be independent and have your freedom.” It all sounded great, but she wasn’t connecting to any of it and felt even worse for not thinking and feeling the way people expected and thought she should. Her basic level of disappointment (i.e., “unhappiness”) also got commingled with sadness, guilt, and frustration with her and everyone else’s "shoulds," "ought-tos," and "musts." It is riddled with the expectations she has for herself and those that others have of her. Who could blame her?

The Flaws in Preaching Happiness

1. Happiness is one of the most ambiguous terms I encounter and evokes intense feelings when there is an absence of “it.” What’s helpful is fully defining what it means for each of us and looking at it in context. It is typically linked to a value or principle we have or hold and goals that we want to achieve or continue achieving. If it is clearly defined, we can assess on a daily basis whether we are carrying each value out, as opposed to ambiguously being “happy,” which is a feeling state that is impossible to continually maintain.

2. As humans we are afforded with and entitled to an array of feelings. Feelings run along a continuum from the “more comfortable" to the “less comfortable." Our natural tendency and pull is toward not accepting, avoiding, and getting rid of our uncomfortable feelings so we can reach and maintain a “happy” state. It is a typical human phenomenon to experience an array of thoughts and feelings. Thoughts and feelings are what they are.

Our goal isn’t to just feel the more comfortable, “happier” feelings, but rather, to learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. We are not kids at a toy store where we can purchase the toys we prefer and leave the other ones behind. All feelings have a place, are purposeful, and will inevitably show up. Our humanness dictates that it is bound to happen. We do not have control over thoughts or feelings, only over our actions and reactions.

3. Chasing “happiness” is bound to evoke feelings of inadequacy because of the lack of feasibility and its ambiguity. If you are not happy, does that mean that you must be unhappy or depressed? If you cannot get happy, is there something wrong with you? Also, you may ask, will I ever be happy? And, what if I never am? My clients endlessly share their despair because of their fear that they will never be happy or find happiness. They have a challenging time defining what this specifically means for them.

The Flaws in Preaching Gratitude

1. Gratitude may not show up innately. There are numerous factors that contribute to cultivating this state. It is relative to a person’s personal experiences and circumstances, their culture, how they are socialized, etc. For example, a person can live a very modest lifestyle and feel gratitude and contentment with all that is afforded to them and another person can live a life of wealth and luxury and not generally feel gratitude and consistently feel they are lacking and yearn for more. Just because a person wants to feel gratitude does not mean that they instinctually and automatically will.

2. Gratitude is often forced upon us because we have been socialized and taught to compare ourselves and our circumstances to others. When we compare, our ability to connect to our gratitude is temporary and fleeting. Integrating a state of gratitude is a process, not something that can be imposed. There is great value in remaining present with ourselves to evaluate what our needs are and what we personally aspire to. When we achieve those things, which involves being proactive and taking direct action, we can reach personal satisfaction and experience a true feeling of gratitude.

3. Teaching gratitude is not as much in the saying as it is in the doing. Taking action on behalf of being appreciative and giving back to others is critical. For example, I have my children participate in events and situations that facilitate connectedness to their gratitude, which allows for more integration and internalization through the process. To celebrate their coming of age, they fundraised, and we took each of them on a mission to underserved African communities to personally connect with and bring much-needed supplies to them. Impactful life experiences reinforce genuine appreciation.

The Flaws in Preaching Positive Thinking and Positive Affirmations

1. Our thinking falls on a continuum from “positive” to “negative.” The more positive thinkers are referred to as optimists and more negative thinkers as pessimists. Some of us fall toward the extremes and others are somewhere in between. Because our minds truly have a mind of their own, some of us weave in and out of positive and negative thinking.

There are a multitude of factors that influence the direction our thinking takes. It wouldn’t be effective to always think positively – both positivity (i.e., hopefulness, anticipation, etc.) and negativity (i.e., fear, disappointment, etc.) have a place. Negative thinking is critical, too. It lets us know what is meaningful to us and further connects us with our values, helps to motivate us, and allows us to assess when we're in danger, among many other things.

2. Wherever we tend to go, whether in the positive or in the negative direction, we can and should assess whether our positivity or negativity is driving our behaviors in a certain direction and whether that action allows us to be our best self. We could look to create balance by opening ourselves up to more expansive and open thinking.

3. Repeating positive affirmations does not necessarily get us any closer to believing and buying into those sentiments. It is taking action proactively that gives credence to those words. Think about it, if someone were to refer to you as a stupid, ugly, and/or an angry person, how would you feel? If you felt confidence in your intelligence, appearance, and demeanor, you probably wouldn’t think twice about those statements. It would likely only sting if you question or don’t fully have confidence in yourself and your abilities relative to the label. As many times as you say that you are thoughtful, you won’t truly connect to that value unless you are living your life thoughtfully. Back up the positive affirmations and act on behalf of them.

It is okay to initiate efforts toward enhancing ourselves, but we are all fundamentally fine just as we are. There aren’t any ideals or states of mind that we need to aspire to. We are who we are. It does not make us bad or wrong because we are not inherently happy, have gratitude or relay positive affirmations. Besides, just because we practice expressing the sentiments does not necessarily mean we will commit and connect to any of them.

The real question lies with how to internalize the action we are taking. A thing to keep in mind is when we seek to cut off, avoid, or rid ourselves of negative feelings, in the process, we also run the risk of cutting off the more positive ones as well. To fully tap into happiness, which may have been cut off too, you need to identify your values, formulate goals, take direct action and allow for all feelings.

We can all create powerful moments if we accept ourselves as human, thus allowing ourselves to be, just as we are, with all of our array of thoughts and feelings. We have to let go of our "shoulds" and the unrealistic expectations we set on ourselves, which are not compatible with the way humans think and feel. It is all in the doing. Go in the direction of behaving in ways that will fortify contentment, gratitude, and positivity.

Here is an I Am Enough Guided Meditation led by me.

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