Question: What is the one big emotion that everyone wants to experience and feel? Of all emotions, which one is the emotion most desirable? If there’s any common response to these questions or the question about what do you really want, at least in American culture, it is “I just want to be happy.”
Happiness, it seems is what everybody wants. And it certainly seems that this is what is constantly sold on the internet, on television, in movies, and in all forms of social marketing these days. It is not only sold as the great prize, happiness is also presented as the great panacea for life’s problems. As a result it is common for people to think, “If only I was happy, everything would be okay.” And so lots of people live their lives searching for happiness.
Yet as wise ones over the ages have repeatedly noted, there’s a paradox in pursuing happiness: Pursue happiness directly and happiness will evade you. Conversely, when you stop chasing happiness and focus on doing something that it engages you fully, makes a contribution to others, and that you find meaningful, then happiness will be yours.
Beyond that “happiness paradox,” there are several other problems with focusing on happiness. It is mis-directed for several reasons. One problem that arises from over-loading “happiness” as the most important emotion and he only one worth pursuing is that it tempts us to discount all of the other emotions. Then we not only stop caring about the other emotions, we dislike them and may even try to avoid them.
Yet if we are to be emotionally intelligent and whole, we need all of the emotions. This also includes the negative ones as well as the positive ones. We need them all in order to be whole. Without the capacity to experience the full range of human emotions-we cannot be fully alive and able to effectively handle the challenges of life’s experiences.
Why so negative about your negative emotions?
The so-called “negative” emotions are important for us to know when to “stop, look, and listen” for what may be going wrong with either our map or our experience and make needed changes. When there’s a loss of something important in life, it is normal and natural to feel sad. Sadness helps you to recognize the value of the loss. It tenderizes your heart. It enables you to recognizes what’s precious in life. And it motivates you to do the “grief work” and then replace what you have lost.
Anger is important to recognize a violation of your values. The subsequent energy gives you the backbone to stand up for yourself and fight for your values. Without that ability you would not stand up for yourself. You would be a wimp. Others would learn to walk over you. Fear is important to recognize a danger or threat to you and your values. Of course, all of these emotions, as symptoms of your mental map-making and understanding, can be distorted and erroneous. They are the feel of your meanings and so the meanings need to be checked for accuracy and usefulness.
Over-loading “happiness” as the most important emotions tends to reduce our ability to tolerate the other emotions. And without emotional tolerance we tend to reject our emotions, avoid them, defend against them, deny them, and use all kinds of defense mechanisms and this, of course, in the long term creates a blindness to our emotions. Only wanting happiness will lead you to suppress other aspects of your experience.
Emotional tolerance enables us to work through the experiences of life without getting stuck by hating, resisting, and fighting a symptom- a particular emotion that we dislike. The fact of life is that when we’re engaged in any challenging project, there will be setbacks, disappointments, moments of anxiety and stress, and therefore the need for patience and persistence, etc. And if a person does not have the emotional tolerance and acceptance of such emotional states, then that person can become stopped or blocked at those very points.
Such “negative” emotions are often the very emotions we try to stop, block, avoid, or escape through various dysfunctional behaviors. That is, what seems like a dysfunctional behavior- overeating, smoking, getting drunk, using drugs, procrastinating, ADD, etc. are actually serving a purpose. That purpose may be to dampen our feelings of loneliness, avoiding rejection, calming our nervousness, or calming ourselves down when feeling socially distressed. These “secondary gains” for many of the behaviors are what causes another level of trouble. They develop as pseudo-solutions for handling emotions.
The real solution is simple- accept an emotion as an emotion, tolerate it as just tension in the body, explore the meanings creating the emotion in the first place, and then find more effective ways to deal with the emotion. The key to changing any such self-destructive behavior is to be willing to allow or tolerate the feelings that the behaviors are blocking. So if you are feeling tension from thoughts of being inadequate, thoughts of being abandoned or rejected, distressed by thoughts of being mortal, being different, etc., then allow yourself to simply feel the tension and explore the meanings generating the tension begins the freeing. Your emotions gives you energy for life and make up your engine for navigating life’s journey-so welcome them, embrace them, tolerate them, and use them as signals about your meanings.
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.