Happy or depressed? Are those your only options?

If you live in America, the land of quick fixes, you could easily believe that there are really only two feelings: happy or depressed. Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth. If you think about it you will quickly realize that there are actually a variety of possible feelings between depressed and happy. The problem with having a black-and-white view of emotions is that anything other than happiness can feel like it requires fixing. Sometimes, the best intervention is simply sitting with curiosity and awareness. Paradoxically, if you believe you should be happy all the time, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of misery.

Pharmaceutical companies and medical marijuana purveyors are all too happy to convince you that this binary view of your emotions is correct.

All we need to do is look at the ancient yin yang symbol ☯️ to see how thousands of years ago people knew that within every joy is a kernel of sadness and within every sadness is a kernel of joy.

If you can learn to get through the day with some measure of awareness and acceptance, and recognize what a great accomplishment that is, you would probably feel more joy than if you make  it through the day and think there’s something wrong with you because you’re not laughing it up, taking a vacation, or having great sex.

What about feeling satisfied, grateful, content, and resilient? Are these simply different forms of happiness? The one thing getting through a day, no matter how you feel, teaches you is that you can have confidence in your ability to weather the storms of life. Whether you like them or not. 

Setting up unrealistic expectations about how life is supposed to feel is a short trip to unhappiness. Of course, if you can’t get out of bed, cry constantly, pick fights with people, slam your fist into a wall, or self-medicate to a harmful degree, that’s another story. 

Here’s a thought: What if we’re not supposed to feel happy all the time? What if we’re supposed to feel the full range of human emotions? They don’t call it sweet grief for nothing. The sweetness in the grief is the release of true sadness. And if you’re human, you’re going to feel sad sometimes. You might even feel very sad sometimes. 

To me, the saddest thing would be lying on my deathbed having only felt one emotion: happiness. It would be like going through life seeing everything through rose-colored glasses. Instead, most humans get to experience a kaleidoscope of emotions. We don’t like all of them, but that’s not the point. The point is to experience life on life‘s terms, not through some artificial screen that makes everything look pretty 100% of the time. First of all, there would be no contrast and contrast makes life interesting. Imagine if every movie was just one happy scene after the other. If there weren’t any challenges or difficulties for the star to navigate we would be bored out of our minds. We are the star in our own stories.

Of course, it’s natural to want to feel good most of the time. But there are all sorts of good feelings. Accomplishment, meaningful work, micro-connections with people we pass on the street, moments of spiritual ineffability, sensual, joyous, and simply being in a body, on this earth, having a human experience.

Buddhism teaches that fully inhabiting and allowing feelings, even undesirable ones, makes life less overwhelming. The sense of accomplishment you can get from surfing rough emotional seas is just a different kind of joy. Of course, that takes a lifetime of practice.

Deb Dana, a trauma therapist, likes to talk about glimmers. She encourages people to notice the tiniest thing that brings satisfaction. The light coming through a window, blueberries in your cereal, a hot shower on a cold morning, a pillow to rest your head on, a smile you share with another, discovering a new author, taking a walk and noticing something different, finishing a task you’ve been delaying, feeling seen and heard by a friend or relative…the possibilities are endless. These tiny nuggets of joy can accrue across the day, weeks, and years and help inoculate you to life’s challenges.

Copyright Nicole S. Urdang

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Nicole Urdang

Nicole S. Urdang, M.S., NCC, DHM is a Holistic Psychotherapist in Buffalo, NY. She holds a New York state license in mental health counseling and a doctorate in homeopathic medicine from the British Institute of Homeopathy.