Seriously, how hard is it to be unhappy these days. It’s like there is something wrong with you if you find life hard or challenging.
Unhappiness, just like happiness is one of the many emotional responses we have as human beings. It is no less valuable. It is equally important. The problem is we aren’t talking about it in a healthy way.
We shun unhappiness as if it is the undoing of us all. Unhappiness is a teacher of life. It lets us know when we are on the wrong path. When we are doing things that are unhealthy for us, are with people, jobs, lifestyles that are devaluing, uninspiring or harmful to our experience of life. Somehow in the influx of educating ourselves to be better and more successful, we seemed to have forgotten one small but significant fact of life. We cannot be always positive, and we cannot always avoid unhappiness.
Here’s the thing. Shit happens.
No matter how hard you may try to create an unhappy, trauma-free life, unexpected often distressing or devastating things happen. You know that, and after over 16 years of being a psychologist and in the wellbeing business, I can confirm it.
Trauma, unhappiness, disappointment and accidents happen to all of us because we live in a world of chaos full of individual people on their own life tracks. A world of random acts, good and bad. It is how we accept it is a possibility of life, that defines us. We must mentally prepare for these moments, create a defence system to cope with it and build the path through and out the other side. Our focus should not be on thinking we can avoid negative moments, but on how we survive these most unwanted and undesired experiences in life.
Psychologist and life coach Susan David said, “A world that values constant positivity over truth creates false positivity.” This is, in essence, a discussion I have had multiple times with my clients over the last decade. It answers the ‘why.’ Why me? Why them? Why us? A false positivity that nothing will go wrong blinds us to the reality that it just might. Unfortunately, in a world full of unrestrained and unpredictable variables, things do go belly up, that is just the human existence. Some of this we can try to avoid (lifestyle, diet, environmental and relationship choices). Others we cannot (acts of nature, accidents, victims of crime or abuse, war). If we overvalue constant positivity preferring the misbelief that a trauma-free life can be achieved, we set people up for serious disappointment, self-blaming and helplessness. It creates cognitions like, “If the world values positivity and I don’t achieve it, I must be valueless and a failure,” and “what am I doing wrong that unhappiness is in my life” or “I’m not like those positive trauma-free other people.” None of which is productive, true or helpful in managing life.
Robert L. Leahy in his book Emotional Schema Therapy discusses ‘the tragic vision’. His theory of tragedy means ‘suffering is inevitable; that the mighty can fall; that forces beyond one’s control or even imagination can destroy; that injustice is often inevitable; and that the suffering of others matters to oneself because it exemplifies what can happen to anyone.’ He is all for building our trauma fortress that will fortify us against these negative moments.
The theory of trauma, the truth of chaos, the tragic vision, the false positivity, or the shit happens approach, whatever you want to call it. Life isn’t about avoiding the real stuff. To encourage individuals to believe that constant happiness is first attainable, and second healthy, over the truth that during your lifetime things will go wrong, causing unhappiness, creates a false belief. A false idea that the impossible is possible. This cultural mantra that we can create and sustain constant positivity, means we are encouraging people to ignore the truth. That truth is how we feel, how things impact upon us and how we recover from tragedy. The truth is things do go wrong and we have to cope with failure, disappointment and heartache.
When we create falsehoods, we create an inauthentic world that does not have room for a real life.
False beliefs lead to false expectations, which leads inevitably to great disappointment. We need to be aware of overvaluing perceptions of positivity that can be unfounded or untrue. That we are preferring to believe in a lie than a reality, so, when reality hits, we are unprepared and underskilled to cope. Negative emotional experiences can linger, they can resurface, and they need time and space to emote, processes, learn from and recover. There is a social inference that to be unhappy is to be unhealthy, even when it is real and raw. Unhappiness is not a mental illness.
Life is not about emotional avoidance by creating a false positivity, it is about distress tolerance that allows us to experience and cope with the reality of our lives.
Health psychologist Kelly McGonical articulates the importance of accepting and including stress (a physical and emotional outcome of negative experiences), in our lives as the key to living a longer life. McGonical encourages us to see stress as the body preparing itself for action, to master a challenge, rather than a signal to avoid the stressful event. She believes we should ‘chase meaning rather than avoid discomfort.’ In other words, we must embrace the knowledge and experience that unhappiness has a purpose. It can bring us to action, connects us to each other, creates opportunities to learn compassion and give support, builds resilience and connects us socially, and is healthier for us, physically, socially and emotionally.
This contradicts the culture we have become attached to that encourages us to believe in and place a clear emphasis on a stress-free, trauma-free, unhappy free existence. An existence that is fantasy, unachievable and, if we follow McGonical’s interpretation of research into stress, highly unhealthy for us, as individuals and as a community.
It all depends on how we manage our unhappiness and how we build a worldview that unhappiness will exist and through it, we will learn, step up to the challenge, seek support and support others. In this way, we grow and help those around us grow.
The upshot of this is, the next time you feel less than positive, see it as a moment to show courage, to connect with others and to hear your mind’s need to be challenged.
Creating a world of false positivity devalues the very things that make us human and help us be stronger and more capable in a world that offers both the good with the bad.
Overvaluing positivity leads to despair, helplessness and isolation.
The best defence to a real, authentic life is to build your Truth of Positivity team. A team of skills and people and supports that create the ‘cone of tragedy’ around you, protecting you by upskilling you and keeping life real and your expectations authentic. This team needs:
- People who have your back and can be there for you.
- People who you can be there for and have their back.
- Mental strength and thinking styles that can turn pessimistic thoughts to optimistic thoughts.
- Social groups and networks that will support you in hard times.
- Acceptance that sometime during your life, things will go wrong, and you will survive these moments.
- See the challenge of unhappiness, stress and negativity as an opportunity for growth, health and development.
If your life has recurring or frequent negative experiences, then seek help to evaluate why. There is learning in these moments that you are not taking onboard. View life as a real, unpredictable but totally enjoyable experience. The good and the bad moments are there to challenge and teach you how to be a better human being, for you and for others.