This article was originally published on April 5, 2014 on the blog "I Try: The Additive Property of Happiness". To see it in it's original habitat, click here.
The danger in writing a blog about happiness – trying to be happy and trying to spread happiness – is that it can easily be misunderstood as saying that “happy” is the only legitimate or desirable emotion. That just isn’t true.
I believe that emotions exist for a reason. (More accurately, they exist for several reasons but only one of them matters to me at the moment – accuracy is for people who write in a medium with a higher acceptable word count.) That reason is to serve as an indicator of what is right for you and what is not. Generally speaking, if you are experiencing an emotion (or 7, which is probably the average for me at any one time) it’s there to tell you that you’re either okay with something or you are not.
Certain emotions indicate that we are uncomfortable with our circumstances for some reason – these are the emotions commonly considered “negative” like, sad, angry, and frightened. These types of emotions get a really bad rap, but without them we would be in real trouble. There are situations where you are a lot better off if you, for example, feel frightened. If you’re facing the prospect of driving in a blizzard, facing down a hungry predator, talking to your boss about something you’re not sure they are going to like, or running out of wine (I know what frightens the majority of my audience) – you should be frightened. The fright is there to serve a purpose. It is there to tell you to be cautious, plan ahead, and make things go as smoothly as possible. If you WEREN’T frightened you would be much more likely to drive recklessly and without proper supplies, jump into a habitat at the zoo, tell your boss that you have a meeting with the Bob’s, or *gasp* run out of wine. You might get out of these things unscathed, you might get lucky, but you’re taking a very real risk every time.
I have an anxiety disorder – I spend a lot of my time afraid for no good reason. I also spend a lot of my time afraid for perfectly legitimate reasons. It can be hard for me to tell the difference sometimes. You know what makes it 10 times more difficult? The idea that being frightened is bad and I should avoid or ignore it at all costs. If all fear is bad and, therefore, undesirable, how am I going to know when to take advantage of a wine sale? (Okay, that one is actually easy... you should ALWAYS take advantage of a wine sale -- but most things are no where near that obvious.)
Your emotions are there to tell you when all is well versus when you need to change something – even if the only thing you change is your perspective
While we’re here, I would like to explain what I think the difference is between “happy” and “happiness” as I see it. As I see it, “happy” is an emotion – it is how you feel in a given moment. It may be one of several emotions that you are feeling. Like all of the other emotions, it is there for a reason. Feeling happy is an indication that you are comfortable with many aspects of your present situation.
Happiness is a little different. Happiness is more of a choice because happiness is about where you choose to place your focus. Emotions tell you how you feel and indicate that you may or may not need to make an effort to alter your circumstances. Happiness is a choice to *practice* (1) focusing on the things that make you feel happy, (2) fostering positivity, and (3) changing how you frame your experience. It isn’t automatic, it isn’t always easy, and it is a process. It’s something you have to practice, and it isn’t something you will get perfectly right all the time. The more you practice, though, the better you’ll get at it.
The last one of the three is complicated, but it is important. Reframing how you look at something strips it of much of its power to take your happiness. For example, when you are sad you can reframe that sadness in such a way that you acknowledge it, address it, and allow yourself to shift your focus to the positive aspects of the experience. If you are ill you can feel sad and frightened, but you can also reframe it in a way that allows you to focus on the fact that you are proud of yourself for doing what you can to get better, glad that you have people around you who you care about and a extremely socially acceptable time to tell them what they mean to you, and gratitude that you have the motivation to really appreciate the things that you care about when so many others go through their days without really looking up to notice all of the great things around them.
I have friends who are experiencing very serious illness right now. I would never, ever tell them that they shouldn’t feel one way or another. They are sad, and I am sad for them. They are frightened, and I am frightened with them. They are angry, and they have every right to be angry. If they wanted to punch a wall, I would be right there with the phone and the number of the drywall repair person. If they wanted to get drunk, I would supply all the wine that I picked up at that sale. They have every right to fully experience each and every emotion they have, and if it helps them I will be right there by their side encouraging them and helping them because, you know what, they don’t have to be happy all the time. That is okay.
What always amazes me, though, is that, with these friends and others, they always seem to end up choosing to practice happiness. Now, don’t mistake me, they are not always happy. When you’re not sure when everything is going to be all right, though, or if it will ever be all right again, I think that, most people at least, choose to shift their focus to the things that make them happy and give them peace. What’s more, they often try to help others do the same. It is remarkable, but I personally think that is the beauty of the human spirit – it is remarkable.
The definitions of and differences between “happy” and “happiness” are slippery. To be honest, the ontology isn’t something I have spent a ton of time on (shocking, I know). It’s all really just a working idea, and you should feel free to take from this idea, this post, and this entire blog only what works for you.
As for me, I have a lot of reasons for writing this blog and for believing in the additive property of happiness
, but one of the big reasons is because there are people out there that I care about who are suffering in one way or another. My sick friends are at the top of my list. I can’t do a whole lot to make things better for them, but I can do this. I can be positive and hope that positivity spreads. If it does, then there will be more things for them to make them happy, and that will make it easier for them to practice happiness.
I Try: The Additive Property of Happiness http://www.theadditivepropertyofhappiness.com