I’ve been saying this for a couple of years now, and it’s nice to see other people approach the topic of happiness this way, too. This all started for me when the concept of “toxic positivity” started making its way around the web. You know how it works. A good idea gets started, sometimes it gets enough traction to really get going, and then somebody bastardizes it for fame, fortune or fun, and then those who are impacted have to go into damage control mode.
This is what happened with positive psychology. As a body of knowledge, school of thought, or life paradigm, positive psychology is eminently valid. But some people started using it in weird and not-so-healthy ways, and this created a pretty reasonable backlash. And that includes backlash directly right at ME. After all, I’m a certified Chief Happiness Officer, and a happiness activity and a consultant focused on happier workplace environments, and a researcher focused on happiness in myriad dimensions. So I got all kinds of flak from people who felt overwhelmed by the constant push to “Smile, girl!” and “Happiness Is a State of Mine” and a general sense that people like me were pushing for everybody to become Stepford Wife wannabes and never experience an uncomfortable emotion (or at least not talk about it).
Whoa! If you KNOW me, you know I’m actually a huge fan of authenticity in our personal experiences, and that means honouring the full spectrum of our diverse emotions as valid and useful to our wellbeing and satisfaction. So none of those accusations were true, of course, but you know how the interwebz are great for fanning the flames of frustration into a wildfire of discontent. I don’t blame people for feeling pushed to the brink.
I’d argue that the mindsets and behaviours described by the term “toxic positivity” are actually not positivity at all, but rather performance, and not in the “fake it til you make it” way, either. They’re more like a shiny façade over a rotten, dysfunctional core. And they’re absolutely not what I advocate for. After all, I believe we can’t actually MAKE people happy. We can’t even really make ourselves happy, not in any real, sustainable way. We can trigger momentary euphoria, laughter, etc. But happiness, like every emotion, is a response to the world we’re experiencing, and so it’s going to be a fleeting experience at best. And when you set your sights on an emotion as the final goal, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
What we CAN do, though, with the understanding that our experiences create our emotions, is change the ecosystems and the environments in which we live, work, exist to ones where the emotions we prefer to experience are more likely to show up than the ones we don’t.
To use a more familiar metaphor, if your Check Engine light is always on, you’d take your car into the shop. If you’re always feeling angry, sad, lonely, anxious or actually ANY other emotion that isn’t aligned to the life you want to live, you should take YOURSELF into the shop. If you’re feeling content most of the time with a general sprinkling of other stuff, you’re probably doing a great job of navigating and nurturing your physical, emotional, social, etc. environment. Sometimes we get lucky, and that happens without us really thinking about it. But just like with your vehicles, if we don’t do some preventative maintenance on our bodies, spirits and minds, we increase the odds of a preventable problem turning into something more serious.
When we use happiness as a gauge, that means we pause every once in a while, to intentionally check in with ourselves. How am I feeling right now? How have things been going for the last few days, weeks, months? What frictions have I noticed? What improvements are important to me right now? How about for the long term? What can I do about those things? What changes can I make? Who else might I need to bring into my circle to help me make some of those changes? What work do I need to do on myself to accept the things that I can’t change and I’m willing to live with?
It looks like a long list when we put it down in words, but for me, that’s all wrapped up in the question, “Am I happy?” By gauging my honest, raw, authentic response to that question, I can do whatever needs to be done to get to the place where I want to be. Happiness is the gauge, and I use it regularly as I navigate my road trip in the game of life. The goals? That’s a whole other topic!