Have you noticed that when you remember a happy event, you don’t experience the memory of that event with the same level of joy that you experienced at the actual event? Four weeks after your glorious wedding day, your memories can only bring you a smile and a warm glow. Four years later, they may not even bring you that. You know it was a happy time but, you can’t fully feel it anymore. Happiness seems to have a way of dissipating fast.

Painful emotions however, tend to behave a little differently. This doesn’t apply in all situations but, it’s not unheard of for a middle-aged adult to have a full on emotional break down due to a difficult childhood experience that happened 30 years ago. Similarly, we all know that people can harbour intense anger and hurt many years after a relationship break up and, a person can easily be reduced into shame by bringing up that embarrassing thing they did 10 years ago.

Why is it that happiness quickly leaves us, whilst negative emotion can burden us for a lifetime? All emotions are made of the same stuff – chemicals in the body, so why don’t we experience them all in the same way?

Is it instinct?

We are wired to avoid pain as a matter of survival so that might explain why it has such an impact on us. However, our survival is also maintained by a drive towards pleasurable emotion – such as through eating, procreating and building close bonds with other humans. In this respect, there doesn’t appear to be a reason why negative emotion would leave a greater imprint on us than positive emotion, as they’re both equally important to our survival.

Is it our thoughts?

As far as we know, the predominant precursor of emotion is thought. Perhaps then, negative emotion lingers because we have a tendency to keep thinking about negative experiences. This sounds plausible except:

  • there are some negative experiences that once hurt a lot but, recalling them now doesn’t make us feel any pain
  • there are some negative experiences that we never even think about but, if someone brings them up we can still get upset
  • and if the root is in our thinking, then continuously remembering an amazing birthday party from when you were 10 years old or your fantastic holiday five years ago, should make you feel giddy with joy. As hard as I try, I can’t seem to make that happen.

The difference is not in the emotion, but in how we process it.
We laugh until our belly aches and we smile from ear to ear. We gush with love and cry tears of joy. We bow down with gratitude, our heart beams with fulfilment and our body jitters with excitement. However, it’s a very different story when it comes to negative emotion. We avoid our sadness and hide our fear. We numb our heartbreak and are ashamed of our anger. We distract and disconnect ourselves from these painful feelings.

Therein lies a stark difference that may explain why happiness dissipates and sometimes, pain lingers. Positive emotions are usually embraced, accepted, expressed and released out of our bodies into the world. Once they’re out, they’re gone; they can only be recreated from scratch with a new joyful experience. Negative emotions however, are often suppressed, ignored, rejected and held within us. They remain entangled with the memory of the experience that caused them in the first place. They can lie dormant for decades, but instantly and intensely rear their head when a person is reminded of their pain.

The only way is out

Accepting, embracing and expressing your pain is the key to excavating old emotions, disentangling them from their memories and letting them flow through and out of the body. It’s no coincidence that many people notice feeling lighter after having had a good cry, expressing emotion dissipates it. This doesn’t mean we should have tantrums in the office, sob on every stranger’s shoulder or hurt others or ourselves. But, we can find healthy and safe outlets for our emotions. We must feel it to heal it.

About the author: To find out more about Pinky Jangra, please click here.

 

‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’

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