What’s your instinctive response when someone asks how you are?
What if you’re having a hellish day at work, or you’ve just split with your partner, or you’re nervously awaiting some scary medical test results?
If you’re like me, you may still be tempted to reply: “I’m great, thanks!”
“There seems to be no bandwidth for people to actually say we're not happy right now,” says Helen Russell, author of How to be Sad: Everything I've Learned About Getting Happier by Being Sad Better.
“Sadness is what we're supposed to feel when we experience loss or disappointment, but this seemed culturally unacceptable.”
Helen was a successful writer for women’s magazines and noticed more and more articles devoted to happiness. What was happiness? And where was it to be found? She decided to devote her career to finding the answers. But when she gave talks it was clear her audiences often thought they should be happy no matter what was going on in their lives.
“People would ask: ‘How can I be happy?’ And this was often when really tough things had happened. Someone who'd recently lost a loved one. People who’d been made redundant or homeless, or suffered a bad breakup. And still there was a sense of ‘How can I be happy?’ There is this real reluctance to be sad.”
Helen’s story reminded me of a big misconception about happiness that was described perfectly by the great Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert:
If we truly want to be happy, we need to accept that it’s ok to feel sad sometimes.
Being honest with ourselves about sadness is more important than you might think. If you're ever tempted to suppress painful thoughts, remember that you’re brain’s so-called “ironic processes” will only work against you. The harder you try to ignore sad or painful thoughts, the harder they will force their way through.
And if this sounds exhausting - it is. The cognitive work involved in suppressing things like pain and sadness winds up affecting things like our blood pressure. It will also take a toll on your performance (with some research suggesting that students who suppress sad feelings do less well on memory tests than peers who are more open about their painful feelings).
So how do we deal with our sad feelings rather than suppressing them? One effective way to confront our sadness is by committing our thoughts to paper - rather than letting sad memories rattle around chaotically in our heads. Research shows that the mere act of writing down our problems allows us to organise them more clearly. Telling the “story” of our troubles makes those troubles easier for us to process.
Jamie Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at UT Austin, is an expert on the power of expressing our emotions. He’s found that people who write down their saddest thoughts often experience reductions in symptoms of depression and in post traumatic stress disorder. Jamie has also shown that expressive writing has positive effects on our physical health - he found that participants in his research studies visited the doctor less frequently if they had written about their sad experiences.
While “journaling” is a great option for facing up to the sadder times we all endure – you might also want to be more open with the people around you. And that needn’t be your nearest and dearest.
On my podcast episode about sadness, Helen Russell told me a tragic family story - her sister died in infancy, which was followed swiftly by the collapse of her parent’s marriage. Helen’s mother had no one to talk to about these devastating twin blows. “Nobody wanted to talk about sad things,” she later told Helen. “I was expected to just carry on.”
Then Helen’s mom’s washing machine broke down. The repairman – a stranger – listened to the grieving divorcee as he tried to fix the machine. After he was gone, Helen’s mom decided to deliberately break the washing machine – which was still in warranty. She then booked the same repairman to return.
“He listened to her and to her pain and drank tea with her,” says Helen. “And I think she did broke the machine a couple more times as well. This guy with no connection to our families, really helped my mom when she was at her lowest ebb, I will be forever grateful to him.”
While I’m not suggesting you sabotage any household appliances, I think we can all learn from Helen’s mom. When someone, anyone, asks us how we are… maybe we shouldn’t reach for the stock reply and just say: “Fine”.
Maybe we should be more honest. We can say: “Actually I’m feeling sad.” Because that’s ok.
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