You may find it surprising, as the researchers did, that the people who were happiest after being in counseling didn’t just learn how to have fewer negative and more positive experiences. The most satisfied psychotherapy patients reported they’d learned how to comfortably manage the mix of happy, sad and anxious emotions that accompany their relationships, jobs and new situations.
Here’s a reflection that typifies a successful therapeutic experience:
I’ve been an anxious person all of my life. I always worried about whether I was good enough – with my boyfriends, in my work, and whenever I started a new semester in school. I would become overwhelmed by fear that I’d fail, and sometimes that contributed to my worst fears coming true. Boyfriends would dump me, jobs would be short-lived, and classes would be torturous. Now I see the good parts of my life and myself. Although I still don’t have a boyfriend, it’s ok for now because I’m having good times with a variety of friends. I came to realize that feeling uncomfortable in a relationship, job or class meant that it just wasn’t a good match with my interests and strengths. For example, once I found my calling in health care it was much easier to complete school and become a physician’s assistant. I love helping patients, even though the 12 hour shifts are grueling.
Like this young woman, people who showed the greatest gains in therapy developed a strong sense of wellbeing based on their capacity to create wonderful experiences while contending with the challenges they faced in their lives. They no longer allowed their negative emotions to dominate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Instead, they attained balance by becoming emotionally agile – preserving through tough times while simultaneously seeking out opportunities to generate deeply gratifying involvements.
The central feature of people who have a high level of life satisfaction is their ability to handle whatever life presents. They’re focused on getting the best possible outcome regardless of whether the situation is positive or negative. They use all aspects of their personality – the up sides and the down sides – to match the circumstances: serious or humorous, empathetic or assertive, kind or selfish, engaged or objective.
In addition, the happiest people told the researchers that they’d become very selective about when to give their time and energy. While there are many benefits that accrue from giving to others – warmer relationships, better paying jobs, higher resilience, and longer lives, to name a few – there’s the uncomfortable reality that we need to selfishly take time for ourselves. If we don’t take time to renew our energy we burn out. Good parents lose it with their kids when they’re overly stressed. Doctors and nurses make more medical mistakes when they haven’t taken a lunch break.
To maintain a high level of wellbeing you need to know when it’s time to take care of yourself, to become selfish about getting what you need – exercise, rest, food, affection, etc. Your negative emotions are a signaling system cluing you into the fact that something’s wrong and needs your attention.
Become comfortable being uncomfortable. Breathe and relax. Tune into your body: Hungry? Eat. Uptight? Stand up, stretch, and take a 10 minute walk. Tune into your feelings: Frustrated? Picture a positive outcome. Confused about how to get there? Talk to a trusted colleague.
Psychologists have discovered that identifying and understanding negative states enables us to transform them, thereby detoxifying our bodies and minds. Then we’re far less vulnerable to succumbing to unhealthy strategies for managing our unhappy emotions, such as exhibiting angry outbursts or engaging in excessive eating, drinking and spending.
People who experience a great deal of negative emotions are not doomed to depression, failure, or addiction. Their life outcomes are contingent on their ability to learn how to effectively differentiate what they’re feeling and to navigate themselves through the stressful situations that trigger their darkest thoughts and most destructive impulses.
Sometimes people become tangled in their unhappiness because they ruminate on their problems. Dwelling on who’s to blame for their unhappy state – themselves or someone else – creates a downward spiral into the depths of despair and pain. Exacting revenge or beating themselves up becomes the focus as they become consumed by their feelings. Observing your unhappy emotions, labeling them, and choosing an effective course of action neutralizes negatives.
It’s equally important to differentiate the most positive emotions: Amused? Amazed? Appreciative? Hopeful? Inspired? Joyful? Loving? Proud? Peaceful? How you could amplify your experience of each these feelings?