Opinion: Happiness as a Hypothesis 


It’s Not Healthy to be Happy All the Time 

By Melissa Harris 

Twenty years ago, I was a single mom of a five-year-old. My days were packed with research and graduate school, and I tried to make the moments I had with my daughter really count. We had an elaborate bedtime routine that ended with sharing the two best parts of our day with each other.   

As my research evolved, I was recruited to help administer a study that looked at different components of family interactions. One of the questionnaires assessed how parents taught emotions to their children. It became clear that positive emotions were discussed and celebrated, and emotions like anger or sadness were often invalidated or even punished.  

I realized that, unintentionally, I was encouraging my daughter to only focus on the rainbows and butterflies in life. While advocating for optimism, gratitude and resilience was my goal, I needed to do more to teach and model a full and happy life. When we portray constant happiness, we can leave those around us feeling inadequate or flawed, and we miss out on the beauty of the full human experience. 

One of the most prevalent dangers in focusing only on the good is the invalidation of genuine emotions. It is important to cultivate a healthy emotional environment with plenty of space to express all feelings without fear or judgment. It’s nearly impossible to be happy if we don’t learn from and process all of our feelings.    

Denial, ignoring legitimate concerns, and suppressing negative feelings can create a lot of problems in cultivating well-being. By “just being positive,” we lack authenticity, we create pressure to mask emotions on ourselves and often others, and we prevent growth, connection, and healing.   

I switched our bedtime routine to include not only the highs but also the lows. Very quickly, our conversations deepened. It felt like we found a missing piece in our dynamic. Within myself, I saw a subtle shift in letting my emotions in so I could process them and let them go. The equanimity from looking at and acknowledging the full landscape of my life brought peace on an entirely new level.  

To create happiness and joy, promoting a balanced and healthy view of all emotions is important. According to research, there are several key ways to do this.   

– Encourage emotional awareness and curiosity. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us, “name it to tame it.” If you are angry, simply identifying the emotion and asking how it feels in the body and mind is enough to take us out of the story driving it and show up with more awareness in our response. 

– Create a supportive environment. On the days when the news is particularly hard to watch, or a huge loss happens, this supportive environment is key. Not only does this include relationships with others, but also with ourselves. A simple rule is to talk to yourself the same way you would talk to your child or best friend.

– Practice seeing all the emotions as necessary instead of good or bad. As the poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be?”

– Educate about mental health. As much as I advocate for sunshine, social connection and eating healthy to support our well-being, it is important to seek help if our emotions are tilted to an extreme for an extended period. By educating ourselves and others, we can begin to break down the shame and judgment when we are mentally struggling and need help.     

Life is filled with ups and downs. The Good Vibes Only movement has done wonders in shifting our focus to the positive. However, to be truly happy, we need to find space for welcoming All Vibes.

Melissa decided to bring the happiness classroom to Laguna Beach residents by opening the Positive Psychology and Wellness Lab on PCH. She works one-on-one with clients to help them implement the science of happiness in their own lives. When she isn’t teaching or in the Lab, she practices creating happiness by being in nature, sharing time with her family and hanging from aerial silks.

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