Happiness, happiness, happiness. We love happiness. Can’t get enough of it. We are obsessed with being happy. All. The. Damn. Time. But what is the effect of seeking all this happiness? Have you ever noticed that the harder you try to be happy, the more difficult it is?
Avoiding difficult experiences is a natural thing to do: we come by it honestly, and it often works in the short term. But as a long-term strategy, it tends to make our lives smaller rather than bigger. That’s the wisdom inside acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and many other contemporary behavior-change models: stop trying to make discomfort go away, and start building a rich, meaningful, values-based life.
So, it can be a little confusing—if you’re familiar with this emerging tradition—to come across a blog on positive emotions. Those of us writing in this space usually harp about accepting negative emotions instead of trying to change them into positive ones.
Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows
Think about this Buddhist expression: “Life is full of ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.” Life is full of countless boulders in the road that are natural and normal, and we can notice and experience them rather than try to avoid them; but it is also full of countless joys, and we can notice and experience those, too. The trick is to examine our expectations and biases, which can cloud our actual experience.
I recently had a time of intense work, which was to be followed by a big, fabulous vacation. I cannot begin to describe how excited I was for this vacation, and in planning for it, I kept thinking about how absolutely ecstatic I was going to be once it finally came along. And when it arrived it was…fine…it was fine. But not surprisingly, it didn’t match the hype.
According to researchers, I’m not alone in my “vacation disappointment disorder”; the more we think something will produce positive emotions, the more we are likely to feel unhappy when it happens. It’s like the more we think it is going to be great, the more disappointed we are when it is neutral or even good.
Another factor that can interfere with our ability to be present to the joys in our life is our negativity bias. Emotions have an evolutionary purpose. Negative emotions help us stay safe. During our hunter-gatherer days, when there was a bush rustling in the breeze nearby, the people who immediately assumed that it might be something dangerous were much more likely to survive and pass on their genes than the people who sat in silent appreciation of the lovely sound.
This so-called negativity bias worked for our ancestors to keep them safe, but now it continuously brings our focus back to the struggles in our lives and leaves little attention left for noticing the beauty of our surroundings, the extraordinary love we give and receive, and the amazing gifts and “lucky draws” that make up our lives. Not that there aren’t boulders in all of our roads—and some of them are quite big and overwhelming—but the road often travels through breathtaking, heart-squeezing, utterly wonderful terrain that our bias causes us to miss altogether.
Appreciation Is Intentional
Like most things, building appreciation for the joyful experiences we have in life takes practice. If we have been focused on trying to control our negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences for a long time, it can be a difficult task to shift our focus to the wonderful things around us.
Try this: Take right now for instance. As you look around you in this moment, what do you notice? Are you okay? Is anything bad happening right now? What are the things in your surroundings right now that makes your heart hurt in a good way? Right now, I’m in a toasty coffee shop on a rainy day, next to a beloved notebook and a phone that I could pick up and immediately see a picture of people I love. I’m warm, dry, fed, loved, hydrated, cared about, and generally very, very lucky.
With some practice, noticing these things becomes second nature, and the full range of experiences and emotions becomes more available to us. This is an intentional activity, though. If we do not intentionally allow ourselves to notice our positive experiences and emotions, we often miss them. Right before I noticed my cozy surroundings and wonderful things around me, my mind was focused on the distressing number of tasks I need to complete today compared to the amount of time I have to complete them (a favorite line of thought for my mind). But I can notice both the thoughts about my to-do list, as well as notice the amazing around me. Opening up to the good things just requires an additional step in my noticing.
Teeny, Tiny Practice: Three Good Things
Each day, write down three good things that have happened during that day. Researchers have found that doing this every day actually can improve your ability to notice joyful things over time. It’s likely you’ll note all kinds of little things that you didn’t previously notice happening. My lists often include things like coffee, kind gestures, coffee, running water, coffee—you get the idea—things we normally take for granted. Remember: living a good life is not just about focusing on the positive. We encourage you to bring mindful awareness to both the good and the bad that happens in your day. Bringing awareness to the bad will allow you to back up from it and respond based on your values rather than reacting. Bringing awareness to the good will allow those experiences to be encoded, appreciated, tied to your values, and lived fully.
Jennifer Gregg, PhD, is a full professor in the department of psychology at San Jose State University; and a clinical psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, where she works with cancer patients and their families. She is an Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) peer-reviewed acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) trainer, and has been conducting research studies and training clinicians in ACT and other mindfulness-based approaches since 2007.
Matthew S. Boone, LCSW, is a social worker, writer, and public speaker who specializes in translating mental health concepts for the general public. He is director of programming and outreach for the Student Wellness Program at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and instructor in the department of psychiatry. He is editor of Mindfulness and Acceptance in Social Work, and an ACBS peer-reviewed trainer in ACT.
Lisa W. Coyne, PhD, is a practicing clinical psychologist, author, and researcher who has worked with young people, their parents, and adults with anxiety for over twenty years. In 2014, she founded the OCD Institute for Children and Adolescents at McLean Hospital. She is an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, and directs the New England Center for OCD and Anxiety in Cambridge, MA.