Can we stop with the Happiness hacking?

girl pulling a face

Can we focus on human hacking instead?

I know I will probably receive some criticism or backlash from this post, but alas, here I go. 

As a psychologist, and a strong advocate for the field of positive psychology, I am all for using personal strengths and resources to pull oneself up by your own bootstraps during those times when life throws you a curve ball or two, and in the case of the current covid-19 pandemic, more like a sand ball or two. Additionally, I am a firm believer in using life’s traumas or periods of great difficulty as opportunities for growth. As such, using psychological tools such as positive reframing or positive self-affirmations can work wonders when used strategically. However, when one starts to use these positive psychology tools as a means of denying oneself to feel, or to make light of what may be a serious underlying psychological disorder, then that’s where things get messy. 

It’s exactly this messiness that I feel is just getting messier the more I see posts/blogs/articles with titles like “7 Daily happiness hacks” or “5 Things you need to do to be happy every day”. It’s like a plethora of quick-fixes for being happy and stop feeling depressed, anxious, lonely, unmotivated, unproductive, or just plain miserable. When did we decide that we, as humans, had to be happy all the time? When did we start to label normal human emotions like anxiety and depression as abnormal? When did we start to criticise ourselves for feeling negative emotions? Feeling anxious or depressed is just as much part of the human condition as it is to breathe and poop. Try stop the latter two and you’re either dead or about to be. 

The same can be said for our emotions. We have gone through, and still going through, a pandemic which has pushed the majority of us into survival mode. More importantly, as the heavy burden of the pandemic is slowly lifting, we are now only getting to deal with its effects. Remember those times when you had to prepare for an upcoming exam period, or when you had to push through extremely stressful deadlines at work, and it was just all guns blazing for several days in a row? Then, when it was all over, you would come crashing down, feeling like you have no motivation to do basic tasks, or you would end up getting sick? Well, it is exactly this “reset” phase that most of us are experiencing at the moment. Only now, as things start to take some form of normalcy, are we getting to process the loses we’ve suffered during the pandemic, as well as the losses we are about to face. For example, those who have received some form of support and/or assistance from their place of work during the pandemic, are now having to let go of these. Similarly, for those who have gotten used to working remotely and being around family, now have to mentally prepare themselves to go back to facing rush hour traffic and other office stressors. This takes huge adjustment, which is often accompanied by feelings of grief, depression, anxiety, and/or sadness. 

It is really ok during this period to feel less motivated than usual, to feel more “off-ish”, and experience higher levels of frustration and irritation.  However, trying to think your way out of these truly human conditions, and their associated emotions, is not the answer. In fact, telling someone who is really depressed to just think positively about their situation or make use of positive self-affirmations is actually just inauthentic and disrespectful towards the person. By doing so, you are invalidating their emotions. If they could have “thought” themselves “out of it”, don’t you think they would have done it ages ago? The same goes for anxiety. Since when did anxiety become such a bad emotion? In fact, it is entirely ok to feel anxious when you are about to give a presentation, or when you are attempting something new. In these instances, it’s great that you are anxious, it actually means you are having a ‘normal’ reaction! Similarly, it is ok to feel anxious amidst a pandemic, which is filled with several uncertainties. Yes, it is unpleasant, and yes it’s much nicer to not have to deal with anxiety, but anxiety is impermanent. It will come and go. Just like happiness! Emotions, positive or negative, don’t last. 

Therefore, instead of trying to stop being anxious or depressed all the time, acknowledge those difficult emotions. Let them sit, accept them for what they are. Just don’t go and bathe yourself in them, keeping your focus on them the entire day – because then they will not pass, because you are actively keeping them there. So, what to do instead?

  1. First and foremost, you cannot control your emotions, so stop trying! Secondly, acknowledge the emotion you are sitting with and then do something that will help you deal with that emotion in a healthy way. For example, if you are feeling sad, depressed, or unmotivated, acknowledge what you are feeling and reflect on why you may be feeling this way.
  2. Then do something that you know will help you take your mind off that emotion such as going for a walk, reading a book, watching a series (yes, it does actually help), listening to a podcast, baking something, or phoning a friend.
  3. Thirdly, if your feelings of depression and/or anxiety are becoming enduring and chronic, it is advisable to seek out professional help.
  4. Fourthly, avoid denying your emotions using positive self-talk. (Yes, I’m a psychologist and I just told you to not use positive self-talk). Acknowledge your emotions with curiosity and kindness. For example, if you find your stomach in a knot at times, acknowledge it and perhaps think to yourself, “Ok, you’re feeling a tightness in your stomach. Is there something you are anxious about? Where is it coming from?”. Once you have identified the emotion, show curiosity towards the emotion e.g., why am I feeling anxious about X? I wonder what anxiety will do if I held its hand? 

The bottom line is, do not invalidate your own emotions. There are too many things in our lives that do that already (i.e., people and popular media). Instead, be kind towards your emotions and accept them for what they are. They will come and go. Appreciate their impermanence and enjoy them whilst they are there–positive and negative. 

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