|art by *SonSurfer|
We do not feel as happy as we could (hence the positive psychology, self-help books, and this blog).
Do you ever notice similar lacking in other positive emotional areas?
- we are not as curious as we could be
- we are not as loving
- we are not as kind
It seems contradictory. Being upset, annoyed, scared, frustrated, and angry takes a lot of mental energy. But we still react on par with the cause (or easily overreact). Being content seems to be easier and better. However, more often than not, we do not react as strongly when all is well and we are being comfortable.
We emote negative feelings out of necessity, when something bothers us. We can get anxious and miserable long before something negative has happened and stay upset or depressed long after the irritant is gone. On the other hand, when nothing troubles us, and we emote by choice rather than out of perceived necessity, we often choose not too. And if we do, we hardly maintain the same level of positive emotion for the entire time all is well. We often let the nice things slide unacknowledged or even get somewhat bored when nothing too exciting is happening. It seems we are too lazy to focus on, appreciate and react to the good things around us.
Besides, recently I heard a theory that experiencing negative emotions comes naturally to us because negative emotions stimulated survival actions in our ancestors. Fear helped them avoid danger; anger and aggression helped them dominate over enemies; dissatisfaction spurred on discovery of fire and tools. Negative emotions helped us stay alive. Positive emotions did not figure in the survival mode of life. It is nice to feel loving, peaceful and gracious, but it will not safe your life in the wild. * So it seems emoting positive feelings needs to be learned and practiced.
The emotional laziness goes even further. Not only we tend to under-react to the pleasant, we also tend to shift the responsibility for our moods (positive and especially negative) to other people and circumstances and away from ourselves. We do it automatically when we say something like: “They annoying me” instead of “I am impatient with them ” or “Today is a bad day” instead of “I lost my temper”. Similarly, our good mood largely depends on something pleasant happening to us instead of it originating from inside (though we already noticed that sometimes we are too sluggish to be positive even in good circumstances). We let emotion happen to us instead of actively creating them.
Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky believe that our inborn personality
partially determines the range of happiness we can attain. Our own thinking and will power determines where we are on this range. The easiest is to stay where we are now; that does not require any further effort and comes naturally. We can sink further down, or we can work and push our happiness level to the top of our ability. But that requires mental effort, discipline, repetition and lots of practice.
Even though a smile is better than a snarl, and emoting positive feelings is certainly less physically and mentally exhausting than being negative, changing our character and the way we react to the external factors is a hard work. It requires too much effort, the results take too long, and in our everyday bustle we just do not have the time for it… In other words, we are too lazy to do it.
Happiness is our attitude. Our reluctance to work on changing it is somewhat similar to our approaches to changing our body (loosing weight, getting fit, practicing healthy lifestyle and consciously avoiding harmful behaviors).
Similarly to the personalities we get born with, some get born with beautiful bodies and do not have to do anything to stay in shape. But for majority, it requires some effort. The ideal body shape may be limited by our genes, but we still can do a lot with our bodies if we really want to.
Almost all of us tried to practice fitness at one point or another. So we all know that to actually improve the body, we have to overcome two major factors – our habits and our laziness. But recently, the society offers great encouragement and support for healthy lifestyle. There is an entire culture geared for promoting body fitness: age restriction for alcohol consumption, anti-smoking campaigns, weight losing competitions, and calorie charts in fast food menus. Unfortunately, the society does not focus on our mental fitness as much. There is no age restriction on tantrum throwing, no ban on screaming at other drivers from your car, no reality shows about losing bad attitude, no campaigns that just remind us how wonderful everything is around us.
Despite all the support for body fitness and all the dire health consequences we are facing if we neglect it, we are still reluctant to make all the effort. It is easier to stay in and watch TV than go to gym and sweat. And the body is a physical, tangible form. Any changes, though not fast or simple, are much easier to see and feel than the changes of our invisible and mysterious psyche. Nevertheless, if we want to be in a good emotional shape, we have to work on it the same way we have to work on our physical shape.
There is so little standing between us and our happiness! There are no insurmountable obstacles and no overwhelming and undefeatable circumstances. It’s only our habitual laziness.
1. Simply notice all the nice things in your life. Do not take them for granted and let them go unacknowledged. Notice the way birds sing while you are walking. Love the way the sun warms you up. Marvel at the invention of toilets, cars and bread slicers. Notice that your spouse looks nice today, say it out loud, and smile.
2. Work on being in a good mood. For every negative thought and emotion, come up with five true positive responses to the surroundings. E.g. my coworkers annoy me. But: I am alive, the sun is shining, my child told me she loves me, etc.
3. Next level: realize that there is nothing completely negative. For every negative thought come up with five good and truthful thoughts about the same subject. For example, my coworker annoys me. But, she has nice eyes, she is smart (or kind), without her I have to work twice as much, she can handle tough clients, she makes awesome cookies, she is better than someone else I know, etc.
4. Take responsibility for your emotions away from others. Acknowledge that you are the only one responsible for your reactions and moods. When you catch yourself thinking something like “he angers me”, correct yourself into thinking “I am angry with him”, etc.
Once we do that, we can work on reacting more positively to the outside world. It will not come naturally to those who are not used to it. But if we are moral, self-reliant, and hard-working, we can teach ourselves to be happy.
* as discussed by Kim Stephenson, author of Taming the Pound”, http://www.tamingthepound.com/