Use negative feelings to grow and transform and to give meaning to your vulnerability and loss.
The Happiness Makeover (Red Wheel/Weiser, 2014), by M.J. Ryan, shows how to find happiness by enjoying every day, regardless of the problems life throws at us, and learning to think optimistically. In the following excerpt from Chapter 26, “To Touch the 10,000 Joys, Be Willing to Touch the 10,000 Sorrows,” Ryan explains why it’s healthy to experience negative feelings rather than try to avoid them.
“The word ‘happiness’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”
Rick Foster and Greg Hicks are business consultants who, several years ago, began to study happiness. They did it by asking folks who was the happiest person they knew, having those people rate themselves on a scale of happiness and provide referrals to others who could validate their happiness, and then interviewing those with the highest scores.
Sheri was a self-proclaimed happy person they encountered in their search. When they asked her about how she handled the most difficult situation in her life, she proceeded to describe her mother’s attempted suicide when Sheri was nine. Her father made her mop up the blood all over the walls and floors because she was the oldest. She reported that she dealt with it by repressing the memory for thirty years and now never thinking about it, because there’s “no point in rehashing it . . . The best way to deal with stuff is to stay positive. That’s why I’m so happy.” Foster and Hicks didn’t experience Sheri as happy. They found her cold and distant, in denial of her pain and thus cut off from her feelings. “Her denial is not happiness,” they write, “it’s numbness.”
In contrast, they discovered that all the truly happy people they encountered “dive into negative feelings head on and experience them deeply . . . They don’t censor raw emotion, deny feelings or run from pain as many of us do in an attempt to ‘move on.’ “This doesn’t mean that they stay there forever. Eventually happy people “begin to transform their feelings with new reactions and insights. What lessons can they learn? What new meaning can they create for their lives?”
But first they are willing to experience, rather than avoid, the emotional pain that life dishes out. In Buddhism there is the belief that life is full of “10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows,” as I have heard author Jack Kornfield describe it. In order to experience the 10,000 joys, he often says, you must be willing also to touch the 10,000 sorrows. Otherwise, like Sheri, you are numb to life. Human existence is both dark and light; we can’t really have one without the other. Our capacity for enthusiasm and vitality is only as deep as our ability to experience vulnerability and loss. Indeed, it is precisely because we experience vulnerability along with joy that we don’t take it for granted, but treasure it as the fragile, beautifully rare gift it is.
My wise friend Daphne Rose Kingma, author of many books, once said of someone we both know, “He wants to go through life without life going through him.” That’s another way of saying the same thing. Life does go through us as we go through it, and we are meant to be transformed as a consequence. The more we allow life—in all its complexity, with all its sorrows and joys—to go through us, the more we grow in depth and dimension, and the greater our capacity to withstand grief and feel profound joy. Experiencing great pain or sorrow is survivable only if we use it to teach us something worthwhile. Otherwise, it’s unmitigated torture. That’s why it’s so important for our ultimate happiness when we go through hardships to ask ourselves questions such as one that Hicks and Foster use in their book How We Choose to Be Happy: “As difficult or painful as the problem may be, what things of great importance have I learned about myself (or others) because of this problem?” When we learn from our pain, we transform from victims to victors, giving meaning to our suffering and breaking open to life’s joyfulness as well as its sorrows.
Learn more about enjoying life: Read The Happiness Makeover to learn why you need to stop creating your own problems and why you're not responsible for anyone else's happiness.
Reprinted with permission from Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC., The Happiness Makeover: Teach Yourself to Enjoy Every Day by M.J. Ryan is available wherever books or ebooks are sold or directly from the publisher at 1-800-423-7087 or Red Wheel/Weiser.