One day when I was seven–years–old my father allowed me to choose our Sunday family activity. He said we could either take a drive across the Mississippi River or ride on the last streetcar in St. Louis. At that time of my life I had never seen an ocean or even a great lake and I was awed by the vastness of the Mississippi River. It never occurred to me that the river would always be there and the streetcars might not. I chose the river. Of course, driving across the river took all of fifteen seconds. Immediately after we crossed the bridge I regretted my decision. My regret at the time was that the streetcar excursion would have been lengthier. My regret later was that I never again had the opportunity to ride a streetcar in St. Louis.
My father could have protected me from my regret and sadness. He could have taken me on a streetcar anyway or have convinced me that I had made the wrong decision. However, he allowed the decision to stand and allowed me to deal with the consequential emotions. I don't know what he intended, but I do believe that he was trying to be a good father that day.
I learned a great deal from that decision. I didn't learn it all at once but over time I came to realize the value of this single incident. I learned that I could tolerate the outcome of a decision even if I didn't prefer such an outcome. I learned that I didn't have to be protected from emotions. And I learned that things aren't all good or all bad. In particular, I realized that my father with his many limitations could teach me a valuable lesson and that I could love that part of him even though I couldn't accept the rest.
Many people may disagree with my father's actions. They may feel that he should have protected my feelings. However, I think this was one of the most unselfish and loving moments of his life. As parents we frequently overprotect our children from feeling unpleasant emotions because we don't want to feel bad or uncomfortable ourselves. It is unpleasant for us to see our children unhappy. As a result we may protect them even when we know the more important lesson for them may be to experience the situation and the consequences.
For example, a parent may excessively warn his child, "If you touch the stove you will get burned." If the child hasn't learned this lesson after a few warnings, she's probably not going to learn it with a hundred. However, if she touches the stove and gets burned she will probably learn the lesson. Now, certainly I don't mean this to apply to all situations. Obviously, a parent doesn't allow a child to play in the street to learn the lesson that a car may hit him. A parent has to use judgment as to what lessons a child is ready to learn. However, parenting involves teaching those lessons even though it may be painful for the parent.
As a society, we are terrified of feeling any kind of “bad” feelings. We don't want to feel sad or hurt or angry. We come into this world as babies wanting all of our needs met. When we feel uncomfortable we cry until someone makes us feel better. This is normal development. However, sometimes we cry because we are bored or we demand to be taken care of when we can do it our-selves. Over time, if all of our demands are met, especially the unreasonable ones, we learn that discomfort is intolerable and we have to rid ourselves of it. We come to believe that we should never feel bored or sad or deprived.
We have developed a distorted concept of happiness. Our culture as a whole focuses upon striving for happiness. We frequently believe that if we are not feeling ecstatic joy that something is wrong with us. We are a culture of sitcoms where problems are solved in a half hour and families are always functional or, at least, happily dysfunctional.
The pursuit of happiness, of the American Dream, consumes our culture. Somehow we have come to believe that happiness is not only an inalienable right but also an achievement in and of itself. We believe that if we experience anything less than happiness we have failed. We never have enough money. We accumulate things that we don't even use. We want our children to achieve even more on this impossible feel good standard that we have set for ourselves.
But we have it wrong.
Happiness is not something we achieve but something that we experience when we have a sense of contentment and satisfaction with our lives and ourselves. This sense of satisfaction is not something that occurs only when things are going well but also when everything is falling apart around us.
We cannot acquire happiness as we acquire things. Happiness is not something that is given to us because we are good. Happiness is an overall state of being that can occur even when we are sad, grieving, angry, hurt, stressed, or frustrated. In fact, the premise that I am making is that happiness occurs because we are capable of experiencing sadness, grief, anger, hurt, stress, and frustration.
I have found that many of my clients are fearful of emotional states. Frequently, they tell me, “I don't want to feel sad” or “I shouldn't feel angry or frustrated” or “I should have more patience.” When they feel sadness or grief they interpret this as meaning they have a clinical depression. But depression is a mental illness that is substantially different from the feeling of sadness. In fact, depression is more frequently a numbness or absence of emotion. Individuals who fear these emotional states are making an assumption that feeling bad or sad means something is wrong with them.
However, the opposite is true. Experiencing a wide range of emotions suggests there is something right with us. We are created as beings capable of numerous feelings with many nuances. We don't have extraneous physical parts. Every-thing with which we are born has a purpose (or at least had a purpose at one time). Why would we be created with the capacity for emotions if we were not supposed to feel? Isn’t it logical to consider that our feelings have a purpose?
This very natural process sometimes becomes distorted for us for various reasons. For example, a few years ago I overheard a friend's mother tell her grandchild "No, you're not angry" when the child was trying to express how mad she was. Suddenly, it occurred to me why my friend had trouble with anger. She had been told most of her life that she wasn't feeling something that she was experiencing. "No, you're not angry." How easy it is to teach someone that feelings aren't acceptable.
We are always seeking the answer as to how to achieve happiness. Frequently, we seem to seek enlightenment that we often equate with a constant state of nirvana. I find it curious that the one thing that is available to all of us, that is within us, seems to be beyond our grasp. The problem is that we continue to look out-ward for the answers. We expect the path to be mystical and expect that only a great teacher can show us the way. When, in reality, each of us has the way within us.
And what is that way? It is to trust in our natural responses, to trust our instincts, to trust our emotions. Rather than avoiding our emotions and viewing them as something that gets in the way of our happiness, we can recognize our emotions as the path to happiness. The more we can fully experience emotions, the more we can use our emotions to help us cope with life. For instance, I can't tell you how many marriages I see destroyed because one or both individuals don't share their feelings. As a result, they make erroneous assumptions about what the other is thinking or feeling. If we experience anger because someone hurt us and we express our anger assertively, it may allow us to solve the problem. Whereas, if we keep it to ourselves, we only become more frustrated.
Sadness is a state of happiness because it is an emotion and emotions allow us to solve problems and solving problems allows us to live as fully as we are capable.
Our intellect only gives us a portion of the information we can obtain from the world. Imagine a poker game without the ability to observe the other players. We are always reading the nonverbal behavior of other people and this information helps us with making decisions. In a poker game, we use this information to determine if the other players are bluffing or how good they think their hand is. Frequently, this information is described as a "gut instinct." If we are asked why we made a certain choice during the poker game we may not be able to say, "Because the other player shifted her eyes when betting." However, our brain processed this information and we attribute the outcome to a "gut instinct."
Have you ever noticed some people are much more in tune with these instincts and seem to read other people's intentions more accurately? And as a result, they seem to have a greater chance for success with the things they attempt? The reason this may be true is because such individuals are much more connected to their emotional states and can make interpretations and decisions based on their internal reactions to a situation.
Many people don't have a clue as to what or sometimes when they are feeling because they don't tune in to the physical sensations of emotions. Other people are over-reactive and fearful to the physical sensations and therefore are often in the dark about their feelings and the information that is being provided. We need to learn to listen carefully to our bodies to be able to use our emotions in the way they were meant to be.
We are prevented from doing this because we choose to look at the world unrealistically. One way we do this is by developing "fixed desires." A "fixed desire" is a belief regarding how life should be and that we cannot be happy unless life meets our expectations. Since life is rarely what we believe it should be, this type of thinking dooms us to unhappiness. For example, if I believe that I have to achieve a certain level of financial success in order to be happy, and then I become afflicted with a debilitating disorder that prevents me from working, I will be unhappy because reality doesn't match my fixed desire. However, if I believe that I can be happy no matter what obstacles life puts in my way and I view those obstacles as challenges or opportunities for growth, then I would still be happy.
I saw this principle at work when I worked on a spinal cord injury unit during my internship. My job was to evaluate the psychological well-being of the patients on the unit. What impressed me was that even though everyone on the unit had a similar type of injury, some were miserable, negative, and dissatisfied whereas others were truly content with their lives and, as a result, living full lives. Also, the staff told me that those who were miserable tended to die at younger ages even though their physical injury didn't warrant it. I tend to attribute these differences to being stuck with a fixed desire focused on health and physical wholeness rather than being able to accept the experiences that life offers.
Experience is our teacher. To truly use the information provided by our emotions, we have to allow ourselves to experience the full range of emotions. All of our experience is relevant and important, even the unpleasant experiences, because we have the opportunity to learn and to grow.
I know that for myself, some of the most unpleasant experiences in my life have been among the most important lessons. Naturally, at the time I didn't go into these experiences willingly, thinking how fortunate I was to be able to experience such pain. No, I resisted and told myself how unfair the situation was. It usually wasn't until later that I realized how valuable the experience was for me. And that the temporary sadness and pain have contributed significantly to my ability to be content with myself and to enjoy life. More recently, however, I am able to look at these experiences more broadly and at least tell myself, "I may not like this situation and I may prefer to not experience it; however, I am sure it will provide something important to my life. Maybe not now, and maybe not ten years from now, but someday it will be of value to me."
This is your choice. You can avoid half of the experience that life offers you by avoiding the message of your emotions. Or you can truly "Seize the day" and fully experience your emotions and the benefit they bring to your life. Sadness is a state of happiness. And so are all the rest of our emotions part of our ability to be content and satisfied.