Why Trying to Be Happy Is So Depressing

There's too much pressure to be "up" all the time.

Posted Jul 05, 2017

Photographee eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee eu/Shutterstock

If you’ve ever been told (or told yourself) to cheer up, look on the bright side, or count your blessings, this one’s for you.

Americans on the whole are a positive bunch: We’d better be positive if we want to fit in. In Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, Barbara Ehrenreich does a wonderful job chronicling the American overemphasis on happiness. She examines how our culture came to overrate positivity and underestimate the worth of negative emotions, like sadness and regret.

As it turns out, that’s not good news. (Sorry to be a Debbie Downer.)

According to a recent study, societal overvaluing of positive emotions, and undervaluing of negative ones, may have an unintended consequence: Rather than vanquishing depression, a lopsided emphasis on happiness may be breeding it. It’s ironic enough to be almost (but not quite) funny: The more we downplay negative emotions and try to focus on the positive, the worse we seem to feel.

“Don’t Be Sad”

Researchers studied people with depressive symptoms and asked them to rate other people’s desire for them not to be sad or anxious from day to day. What they found was that “the more pressure a person receives from his social environment not to experience negative emotions, the more likely that person is to experience an increase in depressive symptoms.”

It seems our unhappiness is amplified by comparison with the more socially desirable cheerfulness: Not only are we sad, anxious, or depressed, but now, because of social pressure, we feel bad about ourselves for not being happy — which makes us feel worse.

This latest research adds mortar to the foundation of empirical evidence for constructive wallowing. It suggests that if we want a chance at happiness, we should allow ourselves, and allow each other, to be sad.

Saying Yes to Sadness

Suppressing negative feelings leads to emotional constipation, not freedom. The best way to get rid of a negative feeling as quickly as possible is not to push it away, but to embrace it.

Try these tips for emotional wellness:

1. Notice and name your emotions when they happen. Take some of these for a spin — anger, regret, humiliation, dread, shame, powerlessness, hurt, fear. These feelings are often at play, but less often labeled for what they are: dimensions of experience.

2. Don’t act on your feelings. Actions aren’t always advisable: Despair, in itself, can’t hurt you. But suicidal behavior most definitely can. Sit on your hands and tolerate negative feelings instead of acting them out.

3. Offer self-compassion, not judgment, when negative feelings arise. You don’t get to choose them. They happen too quickly, and once activated, they’re there till they’re not. Your only choice is whether to accept them or to try to push them away.

4. Stop chasing happiness. The discrepancy between how you really feel and how you want to feel will only make you more unhappy.

Accept the way you feel in this moment. If it’s not due to a medical condition (always worth checking into), there’s a reason for how you feel. Take it as information — that’s what feelings are for.

Thank your emotions for weighing in, and pledge always to give them your attention and respect.

References

Dejonckheere, E., Bastian, B., Fried, E. I., Murphy, S. C., & Kuppens, P. (2017, April 29). Perceiving social pressure not to feel negative predicts depressive symptoms in daily life. http://doi.org/10.1002/da.22653