Most of us want to live a life of happiness, joy and flourishing, yet whilst we might actively strive for happiness, life throws us all kinds of challenges so that peace, calm and fulfilment often seem to evade us, no matter what we do. So, is it so bad to be unhappy some of the time? According to many psychological researchers, apparently not. Unhappy times may even be the keys to our happiness; bumps in the road of life can encourage us to draw on our personal resources and character strengths, which leads to increased resilience and satisfaction with life and emotional growth.
Pop psychology or positive psychology?
In a culture where it is rare to see people openly sharing the messy bits of life, happiness is often seen as the holy grail of being, an ideal emotional state, which if not reached means we are not living our best life. This has led not only to a huge happiness industry; self-help books, workshops, whatever it takes to keep us out of uncomfortable feelings but as a result, many of us feeling that a happy life just isn’t possible, and we can never quite get there. Yet there is no ideal and in reality, all of us fluctuate between periods of joy and periods of difficulty. The pseudoscientific idea that ‘if I think positive and think everything is OK, then it will be OK’ is simply not how life works.
Compare or share?
Shakespeare’s famous quote from As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” has never been more apt. Whilst social media and the internet offer wonderful platforms for sharing the good things in life, our tendency for measuring the quality of our life against someone else’s can be very unhealthy. Sonja Lyubomirsky and Lee Ross’s study from 1997, found that when we compare our lives to others, this may move us away further away from happiness and into a sense of helplessness and dissatisfaction. Sharing our lives and opinions online may leave us open to public scrutiny, criticism and judgment, but the courage to be open and honest can show others that it is OK not to be perfect and smiling all the time. What’s more, as Jonathan Haidt and Pamela Paresky argued in their 2010 article, teaching our children to shy away from difficult feelings and experiences leads to less rather than more resilience.
The messy bits of life can be good for us
As the field of positive psychology has developed, not only does it seem that it is OK to be unhappy some of the time, but resilience studies argue that it can be very good for our overall wellbeing to face the messy bits of life. Martin Seligman argues in his book from 2006, Learned Optiimism, that not only can we learn to be happier, but if we can learn to sit with the messy stuff, the uncomfortable feelings, then we can usually either find a way out of the mess or learn to live with our less desirable life events in a positive way. For most of us, life is like a messy paint palette full of different shades of experience, some dark and some light. So next time you are faced with what feels like an insurmountable life challenge, bear in mind that even the difficult stuff often results in a richer and more colourful life, through the growth that adversity brings. In the words of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. It seems that science agrees.
Haidt, J., & Paresky, P. (2019). By mollycoddling our children we’re fuelling mental illness in teenagers,’. The Guardian, 10.
Lyubomirsky, S., & Ross, L. (1997). Hedonic consequences of social comparison: a contrast of happy and unhappy people. Journal of personality and social psychology, 73(6), 1141.
Seligman, M. E. (2006). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. Vintage.
About the author: Monique Zahavi
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’