We don’t have to be happy all the time.
Through being involved in the yoga community, I’ve gained more Facebook friends. Sometimes, based on the posts in my news feed, you would think that no one ever had a bad day. Everyone seems to be eternally grateful and happy. Sometimes, this can result in readers feeling more upset about their own lives because everyone else’s lives seem so much better, which has been a topic recently researched. I’m all for the power of positive thinking, but I call BS at a certain point. People overly post the good things that happen and often do n0t want to talk about their negative feelings.
I should back up a bit. I do believe in positive thinking and how it can be helpful (if you keep reading I get back to it at the end). However, I feel that with all this emphasis on being grateful and positive thinking, it can be easy to overlook what negative emotions have to teach us. It can also make us feel like we should not have negative emotions or we are the only ones who have them.
Yoga and related traditions do not teach us that we have to be happy all the time. The idea is that we are not attached to our emotional states, positive or negative. We are working to be able to observe our feelings and let them go without becoming tangled in the emotions and pulled deeper into them. This is one example of the concept of non-attachment or vairagya.
In Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in psychology, one of the key tenets is that our thoughts drive our feelings, which in turn drive our behaviors, which then influence our thoughts, creating a cycle. One of the foci of CBT is identifying maladaptive thought patterns in order to break unhealthy cycles. Theoretically, if you can change your negative thoughts, you are able to decrease the maladaptive feelings and resulting behaviors. This does not mean you do not have negative feelings; it means that you do not get pulled into a vortex of despair.
If you integrate Western psychology practices with Eastern philosophy, you can see where they overlap. If you are able to acknowledge your negative thoughts and feelings, you can possibly stop a more intense emotional reaction and subsequent behavior resulting from that emotion. To me, this is very similar to the concept of practicing non-attachment: you are witnessing and accepting your thoughts and feelings without reacting.
Sometimes I think you just need a good cry. Now, I realize research does not actually agree with the concept of catharsis with regards to emotions. For example, research shows that if you are angry and go out and start hitting a punching bag, instead of decreasing your anger it can actually increase it.
I have to say though, sometimes having a good cry or a mini temper-tantrum is really helpful for me. I think what this represents for me personally is the ability to acknowledge the emotion I am having (sadness, anger, etc.) and let myself really feel the feeling. Once I am able to get in touch with the feeling and let myself feel it, I am able to let it go. To me, this is different than keeping yourself in a state where you are feeding the negative emotion and dwelling in it (e.g., having a pity party for weeks on end after a break-up).
Where I think positive psychology and the power of positive thinking fit in with all of this goes back to this idea of how thoughts influence feelings and behavior. Focusing on gratitude and finding the positive allows us to not dwell or get stuck in negative feelings or patterns.
However, it is important to give yourself permission to have negative emotions or reactions when bad things occur. Observe the feeling and the situation and thoughts that caused it and what it brings up for you. By doing this, the emotion begins to lose power and you can let it go. Avoiding the emotion because you feel like you have to be positive or grateful only helps in the short run.
A great example is a recent post by Jennifer Pastiloff, one of my favorite yoga teachers. She frequently posts about manifesting what you want to occur and the power of positive thinking. She recently posted about her initial reaction when something did not go as expected. After having her feeling, she was able to identify the humor in the situation and not dwell on the negative. This did not mean that she did not have the negative feelings or ignore them though. By acknowledging the feelings, she was able to let them go. She also wrote a darn funny post. I can’t wait for my bracelet.
It is beneficial to focus on gratitude and noticing the positive. This leads to cultivating more positivity because you are bringing your awareness and attention to the good instead of dwelling on the bad. However, sometimes this is challenging. Bad things happen, things do not go according to plan or sometimes you just feel a little down. In those situations, by taking time to acknowledge your negative emotions and determine where they are coming from, you can gain clarity with regards to your actions. From that place, it is easier to find the positive in even the worst situations.
Kristin Olson grew up in Los Angeles playing competitive sports including swimming, soccer and gymnastics. She swam competitively in college, attending the Division III NCAA championships for 3 of her 4 years at Amherst College, where she majored in psychology. She started doing yoga in 2000 in hopes of repairing a nagging knee injury from high school. Not only did yoga help with her knee, but Kristin found it was much more physically and mentally challenging than she had thought it would be.
Once she started graduate school at George Washington University for her Ph.D. in Child Psychology in 2003, she found that not only did yoga provide numerous physical benefits, but it helped her manage her stress as well. She was so hooked on yoga that she completed her 200 hour Yoga Alliance approved training at Flow Yoga Center in Washington, DC in January 2006 and taught yoga and fitness classes there.
Kristin’s classes are Vinyasa Yoga, a faster paced style of yoga that focuses on linking breath and movement. Her class are playful and challenging, and incorporate both strength-building and relaxation. Kristin also provides an eclectic soundtrack including world beats, hip hop, R&B, jazz, soul and lots of laughter. She also works full-time as a child and family psychologist with at-risk children at a community mental health center.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta