I have just read an interesting article about a study on happiness by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, stating that happiness is not so much about feeling nice feelings and avoiding painful ones. More so, it is about being able to feel or express feelings you desire (or need to).
This resonated with me, as I have had some very painful experiences in my life, as many people do. In fact none of us escape them. However I am a very happy person (most of the time!). For anyone who knows me, they will know that the most painful experience was the loss of a child in hospital 14 years ago when she was 15. However I have had a time in my life, only a short time – 1 year out of the 48 years I have now acquired, when I was in what transpired to be an unhealthy relationship. Unhealthy for me anyway.
I am and always have been, a very gregarious, fun, empathic person, with a very grown up life, but a free spirit and not wanting to fit in any box. To find myself negotiating my way through a relationship with a person who turned out to be a very conservative, possessive and controlling, was a shock to my system, even for someone, who had studied counselling and psychology as I had. So much of a shock, that it took me longer than I would have wished for to disengage from this particular relationship. Instead, what happened, as I tried to manage it, was that I suffered from huge anxiety, like I had never felt before. Heartburn, feeling sick, nervousness, loss of confidence, bad dreams, insomnia, and it transpired, the beginnings of a stomach ulcer. I became very unhappy.
The ironic thing was, what I was going through, in my head, was really nothing in comparison to the hell of seeing a beloved child lose their life and going through years of grief whilst trying to come to terms with it. This experience was truly a very painful experience and I felt many terrible and tormenting feelings. Yet I never got physically ill as I did in this relationship…..Why?
I have felt from my knowledge and training in counselling and psychology that as terrible as the grief was, I was feeling what I should. I was not suppressing myself. I was fighting for her in terms of challenging the hospital in a maternal way, as I should have done. I was crying, as I should have been. I was allowing the feelings of torment to be felt and aired and whilst I recoiled from many feelings, I allowed them to run their course. I was in fact true to me. True to how I chose to love this girl and the kind of person and indeed mum that I needed to be.
Conversely, with the short-term but destructive controlling relationship, I suppressed certain emotions. I allowed myself to be manipulated and in truth, was not true to the person that I am and want to be. Not true to how I view love and the world around me. I therefore have concluded for many years that the physical anxiety, was a symptom of me being in an unnatural state. Yes losing a child was undoubtedly 100% worse, but my feelings were natural, what you would expect and I let them happen. I felt what I needed to feel. What I should be feeling for me. Opposed to suppressing my feelings.
So this initial study interested me. It states that:
While you might think that feeling happy is a balance between feeling pleasure and avoiding pain, a bizarre new study suggests that this may not be the case.
According to the study, people may be happier when they feel the emotions they desire – even if those emotions are unpleasant.
Researchers from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem investigated the emotions that make us happy.
Dr Maya Tamir, lead author of the study, said: ‘Happiness is more than simply feeling pleasure and avoiding pain.
‘Happiness is about having experiences that are meaningful and valuable, including emotions that you think are the right ones to have.
‘All emotions can be positive in some contexts and negative in others, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant.’
The study involved 2,324 university students from eight countries – the US, Brazil, China, Germany, Ghana, Israel, Poland and Singapore.
So maybe, just maybe, the fact that I can feel happy, despite losing a child, and yet I can feel so anxious being with someone who I can’t express my true emotions with, is because I am feeling and expressing what I need…or not. Don’t get me wrong, the journey of happiness in grief, was a long and difficult one. But the biggest lesson I have learnt from that experience and the unhealthy relationship one, was …. be true to me. If I don’t, I know it can have a devastating effect on my happiness as well as my physical well-being. Happiness is expressing the emotion that is important to you, rather than just the emotion itself.