The movie “Inside Out”, by Pixar, is an animated film which tells the story of a young girl growing up, and along with it, the interactions of five personified emotions within her mind. The emotions are named Joy, Sadness, Disgust, Anger, and Fear.
In reality, though, the average human experiences many more emotions than those five, but that’s another story.
That’s as much as I’ll say about the movie so as to avoid spoiling it for those who haven’t watched it. I just recently did, and I must say, I finally understood why it is such a hit. It tugs at the heartstrings very well. What happens to the girl as the story progresses is something I think we could all relate to. At the same time, this movie made me think as well about happiness.
No doubt that we’ve all encountered a situation at some point in our lives where we were surrounded by people who insist that we should be happy all the time. I doubt that this is a situation exclusive to any one country or region of the world; the pursuit and upkeep of happiness seem to be normal facets of life.
Or are they?
One of the apparent side effects of such pursuit and upkeep of happiness was that people suppressed their emotions which ran contrary to being happy, whether inadvertently or not. Expressing emotions such as sadness is considered taboo and like a plague to be avoided. Taken to the extreme, being happy was considered by some to be the only correct emotion to feel. And yet life throws plenty of situations at us in which responding to them by being happy would not only be considered absurd or inappropriate, it could be downright hurtful, for both yourself and others.
The funny thing about emotions, however, is that they exhibit properties like ideal gases. Whenever we encounter a situation that feeds a certain emotion, the amount of it in that vessel in which we keep our emotions (call it consciousness, or heart, or whatever) builds up. What happens to gases when the change in volume of the vessel is outpaced by the rate of addition of the gas? The temperature and pressure will rise. Eventually, the gas represented by a particular emotion will start leaking out. If pressure is added – what is essentially done when one is suppressing emotions – supposedly to keep more gas from seeping out, the worst case scenario would happen: your vessel will eventually blow up!
Or you could argue that emotions also exhibit properties like fluids. Fluids take the shape of the container they’re put in. Similar to the situation I explained above, when the change in volume of the vessel is outpaced by the rate of addition of fluid, the vessel will eventually overflow. If one tries to stop the flow of fluids by simply putting an obstruction in its way – akin to suppressing emotions – then the fluid will either simply find other ways around the obstruction, or break through it altogether with accumulated force.
In both scenarios, we have on our hands an emotional meltdown.
On the other hand, responding with “happy thoughts” to everything that life throws one’s way has the very real effect of making one believe that everything’s fine, when in fact it’s not. When we’re always happy, we think things will always be fine, and we may forget to plan for the uncertain future. We tend to live in the moment, and to shut out all things that will not make us happy. In short, “being happy” all the time encases one in a bubble propped up by illusions of contentment.
But life is never going to be “always fine” or “always happy”. I don’t think facing adversity, for example, is necessarily a happy thing for all people, but it definitely builds character. It certainly doesn’t make sense that happiness is the appropriate response all the time to the so-called two certainties in life: death and taxes, even if you’re someone who hates the deceased intensely, or the tax collector.
If not being happy all the time and suppressing non-happy emotions are not for everyone, then what is?
I echo a concept made by someone who came before me: mindfulness.
What does it mean to have mindfulness? Be aware of your own thoughts, emotions, and experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. Live consciously rather than on autopilot. All experiences, including and especially the non-happy ones, are there to enrich our lives and make them fuller and more meaningful.
Emotional maturity is not defined by how well one suppresses his emotions, but by how well one controls them. Instead of obstructing the flow of emotions, lead it. Let the flow of emotions occur naturally from one moment to the next, but change the direction, the flow rate, and other parameters as necessary to optimize the emotional output. Optimize, not maximize; too much of any emotion is detrimental. The key phrases are balance and in the right amounts.
Each of us also has an “emotional atmosphere” that is composed of several different “gaseous” emotions. It is a detrimental exercise to insist that everyone’s atmosphere be filled entirely with or dominated by the happiness gas, or any other gas, for that matter. Each of us needs to be aware and come to terms with the compositions of our own “emotional atmospheres”.
In my case, writing gives me a great sense of satisfaction and happiness. I wouldn’t be able to write, however, if I were in happy mode all the time. Most of what I write about is usually the result of curiosity or some sort of annoyance with what I encounter in my daily life.
I think that one of the best things that we can do for each other, as human beings, is to provide and contribute to an atmosphere in which expressing various emotions is perfectly all right. Instead of judging each other for our emotional responses, we should aim to understand and appreciate more why such emotions manifested in certain persons.
Who wants to be happy all the time? Definitely not me.[Photo courtesy: cheatsheet.com]
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