The power of not being positive
I read this article on the writings of Allan Watts today and it got me thinking about the tension that exists between the pursuit of happiness and the state of feeling happy.
As Watts suggests, too often we are so desperate to be happy and so fearful of being unhappy that we end up in an endless tug-of-war between the two. Pushing. Pulling. Striving. Failing. Judging ourselves and coming up short.
We end up in this situation because as much as we want to feel good happiness can’t be forced. There is no magic formula, and ironically the more we strive for it the more out of reach it tends to become.
So, can any good come from pursuing happiness? Or should we just accept that we may never feel positive?
I would argue that it depends. In my experience there is an important difference between actively trying to feel happy and doing things that you know will improve your wellbeing.
As a rule wanting happiness and resisting unhappiness might feel active but they are in fact passive states. They represent an internal battle waged between your thoughts, moods and emotions. You feel bad, but you want to feel happy so you try to quash or deny any feelings of negativity. Or, alternatively you force yourself to feel positive — tell yourself to “stop feeling sorry for yourself” or to “put a smile on your face” — but only end up feeling like a fraud.
The fact is that this mental warfare on unhappiness rarely works, and more often than not only accentuates your feelings of sadness, anger or loneliness.
So what’s the alternative
The alternative to thinking is doing. Instead of trying to think yourself happy — take action. Countless studies have demonstrated that things like meditation, exercise, practising gratitude and expressing appreciation, pursuing tasks with meaning, random acts of kindness, investing in positive relationships and looking after your health can have a marked impact on how satisfied you are.
The challenge is to do it without expectation of return. You need to accept that doing something nice for someone won’t always mean you are showered in gratitude, and that sitting down to meditate isn’t a sure fire way to clear your mind. Instead, know that by consistently taking positive action you are putting yourself in the best place possible to live your best life.
Simply put — don’t think, act. Don’t want, do.
As Anne Dillard wrote ““How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”