Our world is obsessed with happiness, with self-help books and toxic positivity at every turn. While happiness feels great, the goal to strive towards it is unrealistic and leaves a sour taste in the mouth when it can’t be achieved. We’re commonly told “it’s all about our mindset” or we should “seize the day and live in the moment,” but all this really is avoidant behavior.
Humans are evolutionarily hardwired to live in the past and future and are what has given our species the learning and planning skills to get to where we are. For example, regret is an incredible mechanism to learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future. Worry can also motivate us to change our future situation and spare us greater loss.
Several research papers have shown that typically negative emotions protect us from being abused by others, solidify boundaries, and encourage people to respect our interests. Anger is helpful in negotiations, and these moods can make us less gullible and more skeptical, leading to more well-thought-out decisions. Ignoring these valuable emotions is linked to overconfidence, believing we are generally better than others and can cause all sorts of issues in relationships.
Our excessive focus on positive psychology implies we have full control over our emotions, whereas accepting this isn’t the case could actually do wonders for our mental health. Some argue that this tactic has been swept up and promoted by capitalist corporations and politicians to shift the responsibility of suffering onto ourselves, rather than real-life failed mental health and socio-economic systems.
It’s important to remind ourselves that not being able to fulfill the goal of happiness is okay, and having this unachievable target only leads to added self-blame and frustration. There are so many other valuable emotions and experiences as well as happiness, American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson sums this fact up perfectly: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”