Is It OK to Feel OK?
Research explains why we feel bad about feeling good.
Posted Sep 18, 2020
Recently, a friend posted on Facebook about positive things that she was experiencing with her family in this time of COVID-19, wildfires, hurricanes, protests, and electoral politics. She was almost apologetic and was careful to acknowledge that her income, race, and gender contributed to her ability to experience positivity. She, like so many others, may be wondering "is it OK to feel OK right now?" The answer is yes.
Social media is filled with stories and memes that are intended to elicit strong emotion reactions: rage, sadness, righteousness. There is even a new term for it. Doomscrolling is when people start scrolling through social media and webpages seeking and finding more examples of bad news in the world. (Pamela Rutledge, in her blog "Positively Media" provides a great explanation and tips for overcoming our tendencies to doomscroll.). Negative information seems more important than positive information and we are naturally drawn to these potential threats. One result of doomscrolling is that we begin to feel that as though there is nothing positive in the world and, more importantly, we worry that sharing positive stories or positive emotions would be disrespectful to people who are struggling. We begin to feel that we could be like Marie Antoinette, eating cake and living in luxury while people are starving outside the palace gates. We may begin to feel guilty about feeling good.
This response is also natural. Social psychology has examined how people respond to outperforming others. Julie Exline (1997) found that people downplay their successes, particularly when around others who also care about succeeding in that same area. For example, having beaten a friend in tennis, someone might downplay their abilities and success if that friend also cares about tennis (Tal-Or, 2008). We reduce our successes in order to reduce others' failures.
However, it is useful to remember that most comparisons in life are not zero-sum. That is, not all comparisons are necessarily competitive, as described by Stephen Garcia (2013). Our feeling better does not harm others and our feeling bad does not help others. The need for rain in the western United States to combat massive wildfires does not negate the harm caused by the flooding in the southeastern United States. When our joy does not come at the expense of another person, such as when we enjoy a sunny day, there is no reason to reduce our successes—it does not reduce the other person's failures.
In addition, considerable research shows that recognition of positive aspects of our lives is healthy and helpful. For example, Giacomo Bono's blog talks about how choosing gratitude in stressful situations creates a positive cycle (the opposite of doomscrolling) that kicks off mental and physical cycles of positivity. This does not mean accepting everything or denying bad experience. It means engaging in appreciative inquiry, and looking at what is working well. Stepping outside the box of doom and appreciating, and even enjoying, good things in the world is necessary for mental and physical health.
Accepting that we are OK, and understanding that we have advantages and resources that others may not have that allow us to be OK does mean that we have to give them up. Being OK, being a survivor, doesn't mean that we have to feel guilty about having advantages. It doesn't mean we can't enjoy today's sunshine. We can however, remain sympathetic and empathetic to the experiences of others - and take actions so that others have these same good things in their lives.
Juola-Exline, J. A. (1997). When success means surpassing others: Sensitivity toward being a target of upward comparison (Doctoral dissertation, State University of New York at Stony Brook).
Tal-Or, N. (2008). Communicative behaviors of outperformers and their perception by the outperformed people. Human communication research, 34(2), 234-262.
Garcia, S. M., Tor, A., & Schiff, T. M. (2013). The psychology of competition: A social comparison perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(6), 634-650.