While there is no single key to happiness, there is one trait that most happy people have. It allows them to make good decisions resulting in positive outcomes that feed into happiness. What do these people have in common? The ability to deal with negative emotions.
Let’s face it, life sucks sometimes. Feeling stressed, upset, sad, angry, frustrated, and/or distraught is a normal reaction when life deals you lemons. How we deal with that can often have a defining impact on what our life is like longer term.
People who don’t deal well with negative emotions tend to exhibit two patterns of behavior. The first is avoidance. Avoiding things that cause you stress and pain is not, at face value, a bad thing. But, life goes on and there are things that you need to handle or they will catch up with you. If you want solid personal relationships, you have to address issues, deal with conflicts, and show up even when it is unpleasant. If you want a successful career, you have to do things that you don’t always enjoy and deal constructively with knuckleheads who have influence over your career trajectory. If you want financial stability, you have to take the time to understand and manage your budget, and make unpleasant deliberate short term decisions for the sake of the long term. Ignoring the care and feeding of your personal relationships, avoiding crappy but beneficial activities at work, and neglecting your bank account might avoid some immediate unpleasantness. However, you’ll pay the price later when you’re running around last minute dealing with the fall out of your avoidance, or you’re unhappy because you’re broke or have a crappy job or don’t have a support network of friends and family. The moral of this story—don’t avoid, take care of life.
The second pattern of behavior that you often see with people who don’t deal well with negative emotions is reactionary decision making. Rather than accepting these feelings as part of life, these people will often obsess over their feelings, ruminate, spin out of control, and grasp for whatever decision in the moment makes it stop–binge-eating, drinking away the pain, buying things you want (but can’t afford). These short-sighted emotional decisions often have negative consequences down the road for financial stability, professional success, and personal happiness.
So what does dealing well with negative emotions look like?
First, it means accepting your emotions as they are. Recognize that they are normal. Feel your emotions, don’t try to bury them or try to change them. Understand where they come from. Recognize that is okay to feel bad sometimes. Don’t be judgmental or beat yourself up for having them.
Second, know that your feelings will change with time even though it might seem like the end of the world at the moment.
Third, live your life. Don’t crawl into a hole and stay there. Don’t spend time ruminating and not living in the present. Keep living and keep moving forward, even if you don’t always feel like it. It will get better with time.
How do you achieve this? It is easier said than done. Depending on your personality, you will have an easier or tougher time. Here are some tips to point you in the right direction:
Mindfulness. Mindfulness is, according to Merriam-Webster, “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.” What does that mean? It’s all about living in the present (not obsessing about the past and not obsessing about how you wish things were), living the life you have (not the one you wish you had or could have had), and being accepting of your feelings whether they are good or bad (not clinging to them and not trying to drive them out). I recommend the Headspace app which guides you through mindful meditation and includes very brief educational videos and tidbits which provide a nice progression for understanding and achieving greater mindfulness.
Take a walk. Outside. Nothing clears your head like a walk. Try to enjoy the walk for what it is. Take in the sights, sounds, smells, and other sensations. If it’s a sunny day, you’ll get the added benefits of sunshine including vitamin D, increased energy, improved sleep, and a boost to your immune system.
Exercise. Any type of exercise that you enjoy (or don’t hate) is beneficial. Studies have shown that exercise can be as effective as antidepressant medications in treating depression for many people.
Sleep. 8 hours or as much as you need. When you are stressed and going through a tough time, sleep can be fleeting. Do what you can to maximize your sleep potential. Eliminate blue light in the evenings. Exercise. Get direct sunlight midday. Reduce/eliminate caffeine especially later in the afternoon. Take a magnesium supplement.
Gut health. Studies have shown a link between gut health and depression with certain probiotics being effective in helping treat depression. So, take a probiotic. Eat fermented foods like kefir and kimchi. Eat foods that promote a healthy microbiome–whole foods like fruit and vegetables.
Sometimes life does suck. For many of us, the natural tendency is to fight against the negative emotions and try to make them stop by whatever means. These tactics, the avoidance and the rash decision making, usually do not serve us well in the long run. In my experience, the people who describe themselves as happy have found a more constructive way to deal with the negative emotions when they occur. Next time life has you down, try a different more mindful approach and see what happens.
Sometimes our negative emotions are so overwhelming that we have suicidal thoughts and/or have trouble performing the basic functions of life. If this describes you, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help. Sometime’s life burden is more than we can carry alone. There is no shame in that. Don’t go it alone. Get help.