If you looked at two people – one who is feeling angry, and one who looks peaceful and tells you they feel so much trust in life, who do you think has the happier life?
Sometimes the effort to trust or to be grateful for all that is going right in our lives can push other feelings underground. Trust and gratitude are more pleasant an experience than letting one’s self feel grief or fear or anger.
As we grow up, we learn to label sadness, fear, and anger as “negative.” They are to be resisted or avoided. We are taught that they can decrease our happiness. We are trained to think that anger isn’t spiritual – that we should always be loving thy neighbor, right? But the reality is that when we don’t let ourselves feel these basic human feelings, we can get depressed or anxious. And it takes a lot of effort to keep the feelings away. This creates stress, which can eventually contribute to health problems.
One characteristic of happy people is that they feel their feelings fully. Happy people don’t censor raw emotion, deny feelings or run from pain as many of us do. (Foster and Hicks (2004) How We Choose to be Happy) If there is loss or disappointment, they feel grief, if they are afraid, they feel fear. Not that they follow terrible stories of suffering (“Why me?” “This shouldn’t be this way.” “This is all ____’s fault.”) They simply feel the bodily sensations of that emotion as it shows up in the moment. Many intense emotions come through in 90 second waves – maybe test this out for yourself. Many of us resist feelings because we are afraid we might get stuck in them, but the real truth is that they pass.
We learn that trust and gratitude are gateways to being more connected with God or the divine – that they are very spiritual states of being. But maybe they aren’t the only gateways. Have you ever experienced a wave of huge sadness and crying that left you feeling washed clean, relaxed, and so present with the moment? Sometimes feeling feelings can be very spiritual.
So somewhere there is a line. Perhaps the practice many have of keeping a Gratitude Journal could be accompanied by keeping a What the Heck am I Feeling Journal. It is a place where I can ask myself, “What am I feeling now?” Some mornings I wake up in a bad mood and am not feeling grateful – that’s just not where I am.
It is absolutely true that I have much to be grateful for, but maybe the more palpable truth that morning, underneath the bad mood, is that I’m ticked off at someone. I might write about it, talk with my husband or a friend, or simply take a moment to sit with the feelings. Allowing the anger to be there in my body, and choosing what action I might need to take or what I might need to say, could be the doorway to being more available to feel a bit happier as I go about my day.
Judy O’Neill, MSW