I read something recently that said there are really only 4 emotions: glad, sad, mad and afraid - and that all other emotions are greater or lesser states of these. While this is rather simplistic, I do find it useful to have these 4 main categories in my mind when I'm having a coaching conversation. In that sense, being happy is just a more extreme form of being glad. Last summer I read the book Solve for Happy where Mo Gawdad, a Google engineer, tries to examine the facts behind makes people happy - to come with an equation for enduring happiness. In a way The Subtle Art .... does that as well. Mark Manson writes:
Happiness comes from solving problems. The keyword here is solving. If you're avoiding your problems or feel like you don't have any problems, then you're going to make yourself miserable. If you feel like you have problems that you can't solve you will likewise make yourself miserable. The secret sauce is in the solving of the problems, not in not having problems in the first place .... Happiness is, therefore, a form of action.However many of us don't take action: either we are in denial that a problem exists, which can lead to us feeling good in the short-term, but eventually leading us to insecurity, neuroticism and emotional repression, or alternatively we can assume a victim mentality believing that we cannot solve our problems because they are caused by outside circumstances or by other people. In this situation we might again feel better in the short-term, but eventually this will lead to anger, helplessness and despair. In my own life I can relate to this. When we found out that my mother had dementia around two and a half years ago, I think my greatest hope was that we could provide carers at home and that she could cope. I would be able to use the money I earned to pay for these carers. This year, however, as mum's mental health has declined, it became obvious that I would need to return to the UK. At that point I became paralysed by indecision - where would I live, how would I earn money and so on. However action was certainly what was needed. Having gone back to the UK last month to "sort things out", I have put steps in place to live and work there, and while I'm terrified about the thought of moving back to a country where I haven't lived for 30 years, there is also comfort in knowing that I'm actually doing something to address the situation rather than let it control me.
So feeling emotional is good - these emotions are biological signals that nudge us in the direction of beneficial change. As Manson points out, "negative emotions are a call to action. When you feel them it's because you're supposed to do something. Positive emotions on the other hand are rewards for taking the proper action." And yet often showing your emotions is not acceptable - even as young children we are taught to repress our negative emotions - and so unwittingly we are bringing up our young people to deny the very things that will help them to solve their problems.
Over the years I've been given advice to "choose your fights" and "don't sweat the small stuff". Manson also writes about this. Rather than focusing on what we want that makes us feel good, he asks us "what pain do you want in your life?" This is because although people want to get to whatever makes them happy, most are not prepared for the hard work that will get them there. Let me give you an example. About a year ago I decided I'd walk 5k every day in an attempt to get fit and lose weight. I've done this almost every day for a year and quite likely I am a lot fitter than I was at the start, but I haven't actually lost any weight. As I was talking about this with a friend, she asked me "why do you think that is?" and to be honest the reason is that to lose weight I probably also need to cut out of my life things that I enjoy eating. While I've been prepared to walk, I haven't been so prepared to radically restructure the little "pleasures" I get in life such as a few squares of chocolate in the evening or a trip to my favourite gelato shop. In other words I have settled - settled for staying the weight I am. Manson writes that people who settle often wonder "what if?" for years - what if I stopped eating the things that I enjoy (even though I only enjoy them for a few minutes). He writes that happiness requires a struggle - that it has to be earned through the choosing and managing of our struggles. We need to accept and actively engage with the negative experience, not simply avoid it. Often we are in love with the result (attractive, fit body) but not with the process of getting there - and because of that we fail, and we fail repeatedly.
Our dreams are like a mountain. We imagine ourselves at the top, but we don't enjoy the climb. We want the reward but we don't want the struggle, we want the victory but we don't want the fight. I identify with the question "what pain do you want in your life?" I like the expression, "who you are is defined by what you're willing to struggle for". I know that what I really need is to stop focusing on the peak of the mountain, but instead to find joy in the climb.