One of the biggest mistakes people make in the quest for optimism is confusing actually being happy with refusing to be sad. In reality, there is a huge difference between the two. Real happiness comes from accepting sadness, not pretending it doesn’t exist.
As children learn early on, covering up a mess doesn’t make it go away. You might be able to fool your mom into thinking you cleaned your room by shoving everything under the bed for a while, but when she finally discovers those stale Cheetos and dirty socks hiding down there, it isn’t a pretty sight. The same is true for sadness.
For a while, we are able to ignore sadness. We can put on a brave face and hope that if we manage to convince everyone else we’re fine, we’ll eventually believe it ourselves. But, in the end, the bad feelings always creep out from under the bed. Sometimes, like those forgotten pizza crusts, they even re-emerge uglier than when we first hid them away.
Sadness itself isn’t the enemy. In fact, we wouldn’t feel happiness as strongly without it.
The important thing is learning to handle sadness productively. This involves a few steps:
- Feel the sadness. Allowing yourself to be unhappy for a while, and accepting that it’s okay to feel that way, makes it easier to truly let go of the negative feelings later on.
- Understand the sadness. Sort out the root causes of your feelings, being as honest with yourself as possible. Figuring out exactly why you’re unhappy will enable you to figure out the most practical approach to feeling better.
- Move forward from the sadness. Sometimes this is as simple as eliminating the source of your unhappiness. This might mean abruptly ending something negative, such as a bad relationship or an unpleasant job. It could also mean starting a lengthier process, like a diet. Other times, the source of unhappiness can’t be eliminated. In those cases, moving forward might require finding happiness in other places, and allowing newfound happiness to eventually overpower the sadness.
Difficult as dealing with sadness can be, it’s a mess worth cleaning up properly. After the hard work of accepting and processing sadness is over, we are free to enjoy real happiness that isn’t tainted by the stench of bad feelings lurking just out of sight.