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Why can't I be happy all the time?

26 June 2018 - Lisa Mcleod

I think we’re all familiar with the Pharrell Williams catchy tune “Because I’m happy…” with lyrics asking us to “clap along if you know what happiness means to you.” But do most of us really know?

People have often said to me “I just want to be happy” and as an advocate for Positive Psychology, people often expect that I know how to be insanely happy regardless of my circumstances or situation. Those who know me well, get a first-hand experience that this is not the case.

The simple reality is that things go wrong, people annoy us, mistakes get made and negative emotions arise. And that’s fine. Negative emotions are necessary, and we sometimes need to allow ourselves to feel them rather than deny them. Denying negative emotions often leads to deeper and more prolonged distress.

State how you feel

One of the tricks to deal with negative emotions is to firstly be aware of how you are feeling and LABEL your emotions.

You feel awful. Ok, dig beneath the surface a bit and give that awfulness a name. Angry, sad, jealous, anxious. How can it be that simple?

In one study, appropriately titled "Putting Feelings into Words" participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant's amygdala (our brain’s emotional centre) activated to the emotions in each picture. However, when they were asked to name the emotion, this reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.

 We are designed to feel a range of varying emotions as they all provide a purpose. How long do you think we would have survived if we didn’t feel fear, or how do you think our moral compass would be affected if we didn’t feel shame or regret? It seems that if we can label such emotions it could make a big difference. To reduce arousal, you need just a few words to describe an emotion.

Labelling is the fundamental tool of Mindfulness.

How does Mindfulness work?

Countless research studies indicate that practising mindfulness gives you a clearer head and trains your brain to slow down. And it’s a great way to deal with stress. 

Not only are you calmer and more able to process what’s happening around you, but you also get to fully immerse yourself in all the things that happen in day-to-day life. 

Mindfulness actually shifts the way your brain and nervous system functions- in a good way! When you practise mindfulness, you go into a regenerative phase that relaxes your body and uses less energy so that you can heal, rest and restore yourself. This gives your body and mind a chance to cope with whatever is going on around you. 

Helpful links: Mindfulness training app: www.smilingmind.org.au

Simple mindfulness activities: https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/default-source/psychological-toolkit/7-mindfulnessineverydaylife-(with-gp-notes).pdf?sfvrsn=6

Gratitude: 

If you’re looking for ways to increase positive emotions, then maybe try practicing gratitude. This may seem a bit warm and fuzzy on the surface, but it really does affect your brain at a biological level. Research shows that focusing on what we are grateful for and in particular expressing that gratitude, has significant benefits for our wellbeing. Feeling grateful activates the region that produces dopamine.

Interventions focusing on building gratitude such as expressing gratitude to people around you, journaling and gratitude letters have been associated with increased mood, improved sleep quality and increased life satisfaction.

Sometimes life lands a really big kick in the guts and it feels like there isn’t much to be grateful for. Guess what? You don’t have to find anything. It’s the searching that counts.

Make a decision and take control:

When I was growing up I felt that most things had a clear result attached to it. You did an exam and you received a grade, you cleaned up your room and received some pocket money, you broke the rules at school and received a detention. Every outcome seemed pretty much laid out.

But most of life, real life, doesn’t really work that way. There is so much uncertainty. When you decide to commit to someone in a relationship no-one can tell you this is the right one, or which career change is right for you or will bring you most fulfilment, or whether to travel the globe is “right” or not.

There is no way of knowing for certain if what we are doing is the right thing.

We often avoid making these decisions because it’s tough to sit with that uncertainty. Because we cannot act on what we don’t know, we run the risk of our lives becoming incredibly repetitive and safe.

This is not good for our brains or our well-being. Dopamine loves novelty and living a ‘Groundhog Day’ existence isn’t that fulfilling.

We are often told to dream big and that’s fine, but it really is only useful to get you off your backside to do something.  Anything.  The simple act of moving will change how you feel about the entire process and serve to motivate you further. Make your progress visible. Make a decision - it doesn’t have to be a perfect decision, just a good enough one.  Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and tends to make you feel out of control.

What can increase our baseline wellbeing is how much control we feel over the experience. People who feel like they have little or no control over where they are going, have low levels of baseline wellbeing regardless of what their experiences are like along the way. People who feel they had complete control over where they’re going often experience higher levels of baseline wellbeing regardless of the quality of their experiences. 

When you make a decision, your brain feels you have control. Not only does this reduce stress but making a decision also boosts pleasure.

Let’s use cocaine as an example.

If you give two rats injections of cocaine and Rat A has to pull a lever first to get his cocaine but Rat B doesn’t have to do anything.  Would you expect any difference? Well the result is that Rat A gets a bigger boost of dopamine.  Despite getting equal measures of cocaine at the same time, Rat A had to deliberately press a lever and Rat B didn’t have to do anything. The result was rat A released more dopamine.

It appears that when you make a decision to do something and then act on it you feel better than when you feel things (even the good stuff) just happens by chance.

Social media is full of happy, smiley people and maybe because we live in a society rich with immediate gratification, we often want the result without having to do the hard work for it.

Reject perfectionism and embrace the benefits of challenges, mistakes and failures. 

Life is not perfect and there is value in imperfection. Starting a small business makes us happier than buying a new couch, finishing a marathon makes us happier than eating a bowl of ice cream and yet starting a small business and running a marathon can be exceedingly unpleasant processes. They may involve, pain, anger frustration, despair and struggle.  Yet, they are often some of the most meaningful moments and activities of our lives.

It is the perceptual pursuit of fulfilling our “very best” selves that grants us wellbeing, regardless of positive or negative emotions. We need to allow ourselves to feel the full spectrum of emotions as they are all designed to serve us a purpose.

The trick is noticing them, labelling them and taking the responsibility to make a decision about our own behavioural choices.

Lisa Mcleod
Lisa Mcleod

Lisa has 20 years’ experience as a psychologist and workplace facilitator in Mental Health and Wellbeing.

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