We all know how it feels to be happy. Feel good chemicals like serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins surge into your bloodstream and literally give you a rush of joy. It makes you feel powerful and in control. This is a state you want to experience again and again. But it’s an elusive sensation.
On other days the wonderful feeling of elation may have gone. You feel the opposite, miserable, anxious, angry and sad. Happiness seems impossible to maintain. Like many people, you may believe that emotions just are. They just happen to us, and we have no power over how we feel.
Emotions are complex, and have been studied for many decades. Psychologists have tracked their origin, and some have concluded that the thoughts you have, not the circumstances of your life, cause an emotion to form. In other words, a thought always precedes an emotion. To put it more simply, your emotions are caused by your thoughts.
Control Your Thoughts to Control Your Emotions
The idea that thoughts control your emotions has led to a belief system in psychology that encourages people to be conscious of negative thoughts and to switch them to positive ones the minute they are detected. With practise, it can be done, but close to impossible to maintain.
To make things worse, controlling your emotions by controlling your negative thoughts may have an opposite effect. By suppressing sadness, you are bound to suppress other, more positive emotions, as well. So by trying to control your emotions you may actually become more anxious and depressed.
Sometimes, people who attempt this practice do succeed. However, trying to control thoughts and emotions eventually becomes too difficult. People find they are denying their feelings, stuffing them down, and not acknowledging them. This can be a dangerous thing to do, and may have deeper and unhealthy psychological consequences.
Accept Your Negative Thoughts and Emotions
Instead of trying to control negative emotions, some psychologists suggest simply accepting them. This involves changing them through the passage of time, or through lengthy therapy. In this approach, you try not to focus on your flaws. Instead, you learn to accept yourself, with all your faults and imperfections, and try to be less critical of yourself when your thoughts go wrong.
Negative emotions may follow. However, with practise, you may be able to let them go more easily, hoping that more positive thoughts may come in their wake. This practise develops your understanding of yourself. It may be helpful, but most people become impatient with such a passive approach. They have difficulty with it, especially if their lives are deeply affected by negative thinking and personal difficulties.
Change Your Life in Order to Change Your Emotions
On the surface, this is a sensible, practical approach. It is strongly advocated by some psychologists. It requires that you change your day to day activities in order to improve your life and feel better. In this way, you can deal with negative thoughts by distracting yourself through actions you consciously take.
Here are some of the suggestions for changing your lifestyle by establishing new behaviors. You can become more social. You can get active – by taking up a sport or going to the gym. Other ideas include traveling to unfamiliar places, volunteering or tackling a daunting task. Why not take up a creative pursuit, learn a new game or take up a hobby.
These are all healthy, positive measures. It is important to recognize that they are methods of distracting ourselves in the hope that they will change our lives and make us happier. These are methods that encourage you to work on your emotions from the outside in.
They will take you into new directions that may lead to making friends and becoming healthier and more fit. They will temporarily relieve your anxiety and unhappiness. But most people, after trying them for a while, find their enthusiasm waning, and revert to their previous habits.
Choosing Your Emotions
A new body of research suggests that there are scientific explanations for why we become mired in negative thought. It says that the brain is wired to scout for danger. Detecting what’s bad in our environment is a ploy to keep us safe. This explains why we seem to have a negativity bias and why we are attracted to bad news rather than good. This doesn’t mean we are stuck with feeling bad.
Two other experimental studies suggest that by simply trying to be happier by making changes in how you act and think, you can alter your level of happiness. They give several ideas. First, they suggest you examine your beliefs and values, be grateful and forgive everybody. In addition, treasure your relationships, savour the present moment and become mindful.
It’s important, in trying to be happier, that we don’t deny our emotions. Life can be hard, and we frequently respond to our difficulties with feelings of anger, frustration, and sadness. It’s all part of being human. What we also do, as humans, is try to make the most of the good things in life, and minimize the bad experiences we have. Having genuine feelings, negative and positive, is what makes us who we are.
Biochemist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard puts it this way: “Happiness is a deep sense of flourishing, not a mere pleasurable feeling or fleeting emotion but an optimal state of being.”
All this points to the premise that to truly attain a level of lasting happiness, you need to go much deeper, and become much more comfortable about what is inside.
Have you ever tried to limit your negative thoughts in an attempt to be happier? Did you find that easy or hard to do? Do you think it was a helpful exercise? What other measures have you taken to increase your level of happiness?