Why trying to be happy and productive can have a counter effect
Positive emotions tend to help us do better in all areas of life, but is the way we’re going about being happy and feeling positive actually working? Feeling passionate, motivated and joyful about your work will have great benefits for you, your work and will ripple out to those on your team. But if you simply try to be passionate, motivated and joyful at the surface level, you can get worse results than if you never tried at all. You can end up being more tired, more negative, and less effective.
Why trying to be happy doesn’t really work
There’s this notion that if we just look on the bright side enough, if we practice feeling and thinking positively enough, it will become a natural part of who we are and our life will be better for it. And the thinking goes that if it hasn’t worked yet, it’s because we haven’t tried hard enough and we haven’t been committed enough to our own happiness.
Here is where the nuances are important. It is true, that if you repeatedly practice something, it will generally get easier and become more of a habit. For example, if you practice playing the piano enough, you can eventually play a piece of music without having to think about it very much. If you do a particular kind of paperwork or process on a computer at work again and again, it often starts out being confusing and clunky, but then you become better at it over time (and it can easily become boring).
However, when we apply this same principle to our emotions and thoughts, there’s a snag that we can easily get caught on. If you try to only think positively at the surface level, you will often experience the exact opposite of your “happiness” goal. Because when you try to think positively, it is very easy to unknowingly do this by pushing away and suppressing negative thoughts and feelings. And when you suppress a thought or an emotion, there will be consequences.
When we try not to think or feel something, it is more likely to surface (this is called “ironic process theory”). Here’s a fun way to experience this:
In a moment I’ll get you to close your eyes, and think about anything you want, but just don’t think about a white polar bear. See how long you last before you think about a white polar bear.
(do that now, and continue reading once you’ve given it a good shot)
What you have likely just found is that you couldn’t stop thinking about a white polar bear. Now let’s try the opposite. This time, when you close your eyes, think about a white polar bear and nothing else and see how long you last
(try that now)
Did you find that every other thought was pushing into your mind except the white polar bear?
This shows that just trying to think about one thing or not think about something isn’t that straight forward.
Author, Oliver Burkeman explains that in order to try and not think about a white polar bear, a part of your brain has to scan your mind to see whether or not you are succeeding at the task. This can easily take up a lot of mental space (especially if you’re trying very hard, are tired, stressed etc).
You’re trying so hard not to do something, that you’re focusing entirely on it and thus end up doing exactly the thing you were trying to avoid in the first place.
So if you are trying really hard to be happy, to think positive thoughts and feel good, there is going to be a part of you that is on the lookout for bad situations, negative thoughts and unwanted emotions - otherwise there would be no way for you to tell if you’re feeling happy and succeeding or not.
And because we tend to keep trying harder and harder, believing it will work if we just commit to it more, a bigger and bigger part of our brain is scanning for the unwanted thought, feeling or behaviour. Now we’re experiencing the exact opposite of what we were after. We’re thinking negative thoughts, and we’re thinking about how much of a failure we are for thinking those negative thoughts which brings up negative emotions and now we’re thinking within the chemicals of that emotion and the spiral keeps going down.
This could explain why our efforts to be “happy” are misplaced, or at least our approach is lacking.
Burkeman points to research showing that bereaved people who try to not feel grief take the longest time to recover from loss. This begins to point to an answer, a direction that is genuinely achievable, sustainable, makes more sense and is more grounded in a natural and wholehearted approach to how we live and work.
What if instead of trying to be happy and feel good, you turned towards and embraced your so-called “negative” thoughts and feelings?
Rather than trying harder and harder to be happy, to stay motivated, to be more focused and keep it up at all cost!!! you acknowledge both ends of the spectrum. You stop demonising so-called “negative” thoughts, feelings and actions. When you stop putting so much energy into resisting the negative, you have more energy. You’ve come back to a more centred, resilient and wise place within you.
There’s a saying in the work that I do which is “what you resist, persists”. Simply ignoring some emotion or thought doesn’t make it go away. This is a bit like the faulty thinking of standing in front of someone, putting your hands over your eyes and saying “if I can’t see you, you can’t see me”. The more we try not to experience something, the more power it has over us. The “negative” gets bigger and bigger. This is partially due to the fact that by resisting it, you are essentially confirming that it is a really terrible thing that needs to be avoided.
What if the very effort that we put into trying to be happy is the exact thing that is making us less happy, less productive, less focused, less energised, more uncertain and more insecure?
Is it possible that to experience true happiness and to thrive over the long term, we might need to balance out both sides of the equation?
If you stop fearing the negative, it becomes less of a monster to contend with and transforms itself more into a teacher to grow from. If all you do is try to think positively and feel good, you might miss very real dangers or mistakes that have bigger consequences down the line.
These ideas can go against some very strongly held paradigms in our life. So getting this initial shift from your head and into your body may take a little time and practice. Fortunately, there are simple tools you can use to make that transition - so that you can begin to live experientially, what you know intellectually.
One of these tools is called “Tapping”. If you’ve never heard of it before, you can learn the basics below. If you’re already familiar with it, feel free to jump to the next section in this blog where you’ll get some tapping prompts and ideas.
“Tapping” (EFT) is a scientifically proven, mind-body connection method. It allows you to work with the so-called “negative” experiences in a highly effective way. You’re essentially acknowledging the “negative” and very rapidly reducing its emotional intensity by going through it rather than ignoring it. This way you can learn and grow from the “negative" rather than being scared and scarred by it.
Science shows that when you reduce that intensity, you are more intelligent, resourceful and resilient amongst many other things. You’re better able to see problems from new perspectives and take more efficient action.
While knowing what to do is powerful, we can often have resistance to doing the things we know. With Tapping you can reduce and sometimes completely eliminate that resistance. This isn’t just a mental hack, this is something that has profound effects at the level of your nervous system, your biology, and your subconscious mind.
Tapping involves lightly tapping on acupressure points on your body while focusing on a specific problem. This physical action of tapping sends a calming signal to your brain and body. The result is that the problem that once caused you distress, now has little or no power over you. In other words, you’re removing what’s in the way rather than using more force.
Remember to take responsibility for your own wellbeing.
Tapping: how to do the basics
1) Identify a specific negative experience (past, present or future) to work on.
2) See if you can feel any emotion or physical sensation when you focus on this. (eg: feeling stressed, angry, tightness in your chest, pit in your stomach etc). Identify the level of intensity for you right now on a 0-10 scale (0 being no intensity, 10 being maximum intensity).
3) Tap the side of hand point continuously while saying the following 3 times:
“Even though_____________(insert problem), I deeply and completely accept myself”.
eg: “Even though I’m stressed by this project, I deeply and completely accept myself”.
(Note: If the last part of this statement feels off, you can try using “I accept I’m feeling this” or “I’m OK right now”).
4) Gently tap the 8 points about 7 times each with your fingertips while repeating a brief phrase at each point, that reminds you of the problem. eg: “feeling stressed”, “this project”.
5) Test to see if there has been any change on the 0-10 scale of intensity or a change in emotion/physical sensation.
6) Repeat until intensity is 0, adjusting statements to reflect any changes you experience.
keep in mind that these are just the basics of one method. You may either need more knowledge or the guidance of a trained practitioner to get the results you want. Check out these blog posts where I cover the most crucial information when it comes to getting results with “Tapping”:
How to get real lasting results with “Tapping”
You will get the best results with Tapping when you focus on your specific situation and use your own words to accurately describe it. However, having some prompts can be helpful to get you started. I encourage you to use the following as jumping off points rather than a strict script to stick to. Use what resonates with you and discard what doesn’t:
Even though I’m use to trying to be happy, and I don’t know what will happen if I change that, I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though I feel_____________(voice how you feel) when I think about embracing the negative, I deeply and completely accept myself.
Even though I’m afraid that if I look at my negative thoughts and feelings____________(voice what you’re afraid might happen), I deeply and completely accept myself.
Even though the emotion I dislike feeling the most is_____________(voice your most disliked emotion), I deeply and completely accept myself
Even though I’m always trying to not think about_____________(voice something you actively try not to think about), I deeply and completely accept myself
Debunking the 5 most common meditation myths TED talk by Light Watkins: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xco3UjLLvGo
The antidote: happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking by Oliver Burkeman
Side of hand photo adapted from Andrik Langfield on Unsplash
Tapping points photo adapted from Albert Dera on Unsplash
Cover photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash